Drama worth catching: Train 48, with its storytelling on the fly, quickly captures the imagination
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 June 2003)

We who watch Train 48, the startling new TV series that runs at seven o'clock every weeknight on Global, have already discovered that it requires a major suspension of disbelief. We must accept the notion that the same 10 commuters ride in the same car from downtown Toronto to Burlington every night, that they often shift from seat to seat during the journey, and that they chat most of the way. We have to believe they are addictive confessional talkers who treat their commute like group therapy. But then, TV has made us accustomed to unlikely dramatic conventions. Viewers of the original Law & Order, for instance, long ago agreed to believe that the same two detectives solve every interesting crime in Manhattan.

Those who give Train 48 the benefit of the doubt may find themselves amply rewarded. It surprised me last week by capturing my imagination in only a few minutes. Steve Levitan, the executive producer, has adapted an Australian series as a one-set running drama, part comedy and part soap, that looks like one of those programs we'll be talking about for a long time.

It offers, first of all, the pleasure of watching instant storytelling, drama invented on the fly. Levitan's five writers create the characters and guide the themes and conflicts, but the actors improvise the dialogue. Viewers will wonder whether the more or less spontaneous opinions they spray around the car are in truth the views of the actors, but only their friends will know for sure.

They tape each morning for editing in the afternoon and broadcast the same evening, which means that their conversation echoes the daily news in a way we rarely encounter in drama. During the first few instalments, Martha Stewart's indictment, Sammy Sosa's corked bat, and Hillary Clinton's memoirs all flowed easily through the conversations, usually in ways that revealed character.

At times Train 48 recalls one of those Second World War movies, where every platoon had a southerner, a factory worker with a Polish name, a sensitive college guy, and, for sure, a breezy loudmouth from Brooklyn.

These Burlington commuters include Peter, a Bay Street stockbroker-shark, and Dana, a young lesbian who sells jewellery on Queen Street West while living in her parents' Burlington basement and dreaming of a career in music. (The sourpuss in this crowd, she disapproves of everybody else.) There's Johnny, a construction foreman in a ballcap who punctuates his sentences with "Eh," and Brenda, a gossipy woman who loves her job in an insurance company and invites everybody to her church's Christian rap concert, starring a group called Run with JC. There's Zach, an eager young designer who's terrified of women, and Lucas, a sexy adman and screenwriting hopeful. In the first week's most celebrated incident, Lucas slipped into the washroom for sex with a strange woman. However, he insists he's searching for true love.

Things move with astonishing speed among these characters. In a twinkling, alliances form, feuds erupt, resentments flower, and a psychological group portrait emerges. Our commuters have quickly developed a collective identity. Most of them love giving advice but do it awkwardly. They are sensitive and caring people, except when they're not -- then they're nasty and resentful.

They are needy and look for friendly cues from each other, wanting acceptance and validation. Misunderstandings often arise, sometimes out of their anxiety to communicate. Two failed marriages have soured Liz, an executive at a pharmaceutical company, so she's planning to have a baby by artificial insemination. She's bitter when Shannon fails to share her enthusiasm, then gratefully accepts the support of Randy. He's an earnest Korean engineer with a way of talking that's just off-centre enough to be engaging. "You're the smartest white guy I know," he says, seriously, to another character. When explaining that people are afraid of new ideas like artificial insemination, he says, "People a hundred years ago, they were afraid of indoor plumbing."

We never see their partners, relatives or co-workers, so we can know about their off-screen lives only through the facts the commuters choose to reveal. We learn that the woman Randy will soon marry already dominates him, which he tries not to realize (the others helpfully point it out, however). A particular fear runs through the conversations of these people: They are afraid of being manipulated and believe others take advantage of them. Shannon and her powerful sister conduct a war by cellphone over the care of their mother. The men say things like, "You give women an inch, they take a mile."

No one can say the program shies away from heavyweight themes. The first episode dealt with childbirth (Liz's fear that "I'm running out of time"), with death (Peter, the stockbroker, has made money from one of those insurance policies that allow investors to profit from a stranger's early demise), and, of course, sex, in the washroom and on their minds. Ballcap Pete takes a narrow view of sex. He's nervously homophobic and he calls sex with his wife "intimate relations."

With the obvious success of the earliest editions behind them, the producers and writers must be wondering how far their stories can develop. Using a journey as a way to show character goes back to Homer and in modern times encompasses everything from John Ford's Stagecoach to James Cameron's Titanic. But a commuter train? It doesn't stop for new passengers and doesn't alter its destination, thereby eliminating two traditional sources of narrative. Train 48's writers will have to be nimble to avoid claustrophobia and repetition.

Product placement, part of the business plan for the program, somehow fits these characters perfectly. So far we've seen only a little of it, including a poster inside the train advertising Fido and a Tim Hortons logo that flashes by in the night. And because Train 48 is made for Global, our CanWest corporate partner, characters on the train reading a newspaper will for certain choose the National Post, unless they're criticizing The Toronto Sun. Furthermore, on Tuesday nights you can catch a glimpse of Rebecca Eckler among the extras in the background, absorbing column material. That all strikes me as admirably educational. Finally, someone has figured out how to illustrate the meaning of "convergence."

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