Jann Arden's comedy series recalls the savage wit of HBO’s The Comeback, especially in depicting how demoralizing the industry can be for older women.
Well-known musicians can successfully do holiday specials, host awards shows and even pull off some non-musical sketches on SNL. Few, however, could hold your interest in a weekly sitcom.
But Jann Arden has the kind of presence, innate comic timing and acting skills that go beyond stunt casting. Her new TV show, Jann, is the real deal: a funny, biting satire about the entertainment industry that isn’t afraid to make fun of its star.
Consider the series’ cold open, in which (fictional) Jann is sobbing while zig-zagging in her car along a wintry rural Calgary road, when her 1994 hit Insensitive comes on the radio and the DJ describes it as “an oldie but a goodie.” Her mascara running, Jann begins pathetically singing along to it when she looks in the rearview mirror to see a police car behind her. Then, her attention on the road again, she realizes she’s about to run over a couple of cows.
Welcome to celebrity life, Canadian style.
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Turns out Jann’s having a bad day. Her career’s at a standstill, since her inept manager Todd (Jason Blicker) can only land her gigs at farmer’s markets – the type where she’s paid in cheese. She gets a spot on a Cancer Fest fundraiser.... when Terri Clark cancels. Humiliations ensue at the concert when no one recognizes her without her backstage pass.
Then there’s her personal life. She’s split from her girlfriend, Cynthia (Sharon Taylor), and her sister, Max (Zoie Palmer), has just found out she’s pregnant with her fourth child and so wants their aging, forgetful mother, Nora (Deborah Grover), to move in with Jann.
The writers have lots of fun playing with their star’s persona. There have been rumours about the singer/songwriter’s sexual orientation throughout her career, so it’s refreshing to see Arden – or at least her alter ego – be out to everyone, at least in the three out of six episodes shown to reviewers.
It’s brave, too, to deal with aging and memory loss, especially since Arden’s actual mother passed away at the end of 2018 after struggling with Alzheimer’s. The way the show handles Nora’s dementia – and the adult children’s reaction to it – is sensitive, the forgetfulness and frustration getting gentle laughs.
The show’s creators are also careful in depicting TV-Jann’s economic privilege. The pilot’s title, The Big House, has a double meaning, one definition referring to the picturesque, light-filled house that the fictional Arden occasionally rents out for added income while she stays in a nearby cottage. (To reveal the celebrity guest tenant in the first episode would be a spoiler.)
We also learn Arden’s helped support her family – in the third episode she’s putting her niece through college.
But the show works best as a satire of the entertainment industry. When The Weeknd samples one of Arden’s songs, she gains a whole new generation of fans who want to take selfies with her. An ambitious manager named Cale, “with a C” (Elena Juatco in the series’ breakthrough role), gets Jann to endorse a questionable clothing item to build her social media profile. And the taping of a We Are The World-type choral number becomes an opportunity for ego-boosting and one-upmanship. At its best the show recalls the savage wit of HBO’s The Comeback, especially in depicting how demoralizing the industry can be for older women.
But grounding it all is Arden’s revelatory performance. She’s unafraid to look plain – one scene features her taking out the garbage when she should be preparing for a photo shoot. And there’s an anxiety in her eyes when she’s playing the public figure, as if she knows it’s all an act.
One of the first things Cale says to Arden is: “You look normal-sized in person,” to which Arden says, “Thank you... I think.”
Which by itself speaks volumes about celebrity culture.