Thursday, February 18, 2010

Regrets Only

My new favorite guilty pleasure TV series is a Canadian import from the CBC called Being Erica. Its second season is currently running on Soapnet in the US; episodes of season two are available on Hulu after broadcast, as are all the installments of season one. Erica is a thirty-two year old single Jewish Torontonian stalled in her career and life. The show begins with Erica, after a particularly bad day, meeting a mysterious therapist named Dr. Tom and agreeing to undergo therapy with him. Dr. Tom asks her to list all of her regrets and then proceeds to not just discuss them with her, but facilitate her travelling back in time to relive and alter the experiences and decisions that she regrets. Things are of course never as simple or clear as in retrospect; Erica’s revisits and subsequent reflections help her grow and gain understanding of both herself and the people in her life. Over time, we watch her change as she learns to listen better to both her inner compass and to those around her.
This series piqued my interest for a number of reasons as soon as I happened upon a description (I have sadly forgotten where I originally read about it); its humor and humanity have won me over as a true fan and I hope that a third season is approved for filming. Being Erica combines a number of elements that I love: urban life, Judaism, personal journeys, psychological reflection and science fiction. It is fun to glimpse life in Toronto, a central city in a country very close to but not quite like mine, which also contains young urbanites figuring out their lives, public transportation, cafes, pedestrians and street culture. Judaism is a key aspect of Erica’s identity – her father is a second career rabbi – but it never dominates the storyline. The way in which Jewish practice is included or remarked upon is refreshing in its normalcy and perspective. Except for Erica’s father it is a passive element in the lives of Erica and her family members. In many ways the series is an updated bildungsroman, but a coming of age in one’s thirties that has become typical of a certain portion of the population only in recent decades. I recognize it well from the vantage point of my own generation. Important too is the fact that Erica is female, which makes all of the elements that she is juggling that much more complicated. The combination of psychology and time travel may seem outlandish at first, but I appreciate the genius of concretizing the experience of reviewing one’s past which is such a hallmark of our psychologically savvy culture. So too is the realm of fantasy and the desire to be able to go back in time and correct mistakes. A number of more traditional time travel fantasies emphasize the danger of encountering one’s past or future selves for fear of altering (read ruining) one’s “real” life. But for Erica the game is just the opposite: she literally embodies her former self with her present thoughts and predilections, often with humorous results, in order to improve her present. One can imagine her ruing ever saying “If only I knew then what I know now…” as she has actually experienced such a paradox. Catch yourself the next time you say the same out loud in your own mind.
Inspired by the show, I started my own list of regrets. While it is a work in progress, bound to be both refined and extended, I have noticed a few patterns, most significantly how many of items relate to things that I did not do, missed opportunities. My list rang in my ears like a recitation of negative commandments – the Thou Shalt Nots that are all too familiar from the Ten Commandments, although I assure you that there are many more of them in traditional Jewish practice. This made me wonder about and question my own courage and convictions – both are qualities that Erica strengthens over the course of the series – and what I can do to live more conscious of the importance of certain moments and their significance, including imagining how I might feel about them as I look back at them from the future.
It is my sense that the show’s quality is in large part attributable to its being Canadian rather than American but I do not feel that I know enough to be able to describe exactly why. So I hooked a Canadian friend who grew up in Toronto but has lived in the United States for virtually all of her adult life. I asked her about my thesis and look forward to our discussion of it. As a comparison, one might consider the TV series born in Latin America and produced here as Ugly Betty. I first learned about this show and its cultural migration when Israeli cousins introduced me to their national version Esti Hamechoeret = Esti the Ugly. The New York Times ran an article describing the phenomenon ( when the American version debuted. Considering how often American models of entertainment dominate global popular culture, it is fun to consider one that came from elsewhere and has proven so attractive in multiple cultures. Regrettably, Ugly Betty has been cancelled and this season will be its last. Betty is another female protagonist who is strong and plucky, imperfect and endearing. Thanks to the internet the demise of such a show is not the same sort of death sentence as it was even a short while ago. May Betty, Erica and their entire cohorts live on and share many triumphs and lessons, past, present and future.
©2010 Leah Strigler