Erica Strange entered our cultural consciousness in 2009, as a high-concept dramedy about a Toronto woman in her early 30s...
by Chandler Levack February 6, 2012
Erica Strange entered our cultural consciousness in 2009, as a high-concept dramedy about a Toronto woman in her early 30s, floundering in adulthood. In the pilot, Erica is stood up by her online date and somehow enters the portal of telekinetic time-travel therapy. There, she strikes up a deal with her enigmatic therapist, Dr. Tom. Every time Erica’s feeling pummeled by life, Dr. Tom will somehow enforce the wormhole of commitment-phobia, allowing Erica to reenact the most traumatic moments of her life, and do it right this time. So basically, Erica was granted the gift of a magical premise generator.
With December 2011’s series finale, Being Erica was canceled after four seasons. And with this being the first non-Erica year in a while, it might be a good idea to look back at the show’s success. The show has done surprisingly well for a CBC export, airing in nearly 160 countries and with green-lighted U.S. and U.K. interpretations. The concept was irresistible: Erica Strange was a guilt-ridden Canadian Jewish girl who looked like Jennifer Aniston. And she was able to do things like take back her own virginity from the douchebag who sexually assaulted her and relive her “perfect summer day” on Toronto Island. Whenever Erica was sent down the rabbit hole to save her dead brother from a fire and allow him to live, or to un-kiss the best friend who now won’t speak to her, it didn’t take a physicist for viewers to dream up their own Dr. Toms.
The first season of the show felt like a landmark novelization of ’90s Toronto (Erica’s glory days). In the second episode, “What I Am Is What I Am,” Erica goes back to Victoria College clad in dreadlocks and Dr. Martens to join the secret academic society that once rejected her. The show used the backdrops of Casa Loma (where Erica was employed as a teenager and later threw a bitchin’ Halloween party) and the 2003 Toronto blackout to portray a universal narrative. During that first perfect season of Being Erica, Toronto, in its own way, was a secondary character that had enforced its own psychological pain on Erica’s subconscious.
All Torontonians have their own tortured relationships to their city, and Erica was no different. Though the neighbourhoods we used to frequent have changed, our clinging nostalgia to them never goes away. Wouldn’t it be nice to travel back in time to Sanctuary, the vampire bar in Trinity Bellwoods, and do it right this time? Wouldn’t it be cool to go to the Green Room for one last drink as your 17-year-old self and not throw up on your crush?
As the show evolved, the producers realized the limitations of their own format and forced Erica to flash into other people’s pasts, including Dr. Tom’s troubled youth. (In one of the weakest plot developments of the show, Erica fell in love with Kai, a time-travel sort of Highlander indie rocker, who has been hurtling through the past and future for ages.) That wasn’t as interesting as where her future was going, as she started her own publishing company with her previously evil boss, Julianne. As “Erica the 30-year-old junior assistant” turned into “Erica the career woman,” she stopped fetishizing her No Logo days and started frequenting Brassaii in Marciano cocktail dresses. She moved on, ostensibly, but as she progressed through her treatment, Erica just got more self-entitled.
Erica began the show as an insecure depressive, emotionally blocked by a laundry list of moments from her past that she wished she could change. By the series’ conclusion, she had become a time-travel therapist herself, and she had begun taking on clients that included the people in her present. (This break into another’s subconscious to solve their traumas was especially never explained, so WTF CBC?) The show got hokey (the episode “The Unkindest Cut” has Erica fainting at a family bris, only to be propelled into the future), and two episodes starring product placements for the 2012 Ford Focus and Tetley Tea Infusions had critics lambasting the show.
But the core truth of Erica Strange—a 32-year-old woman who had a master’s degree instead of a job, and who was single at an age when her Facebook must have been wall-to-wall pictures of other people’s babies—felt real. There’s an unsettling fear that comes with an unknown future and the dread that you’ve screwed up your past. Erica’s friends felt like echoes of this: Her bestie, Judith, was terrified of children and (spoiler alert) almost engaged in an affair as soon as she gave birth. Erica’s friend Jenny was stuck in a perpetual high school party-girl mode and moved to Los Angeles, only to max out her credit cards and become homeless. And, in an episode dealing with Erica’s frenemy Katie, a blonde and wealthy lifestyle columnist for the Globe And Mail (shades of Leah McLaren, anyone?), Erica realizes that maybe she was the coolest girl in her circle of friends, instead of the outsider all along.
Real therapy does not work like this. Instead of time-travel sex and reliving the most painful moments of your life (with all the said parties present), real therapy just means wading through torment and hoping that it gets better, if you’re lucky.
It’s unclear whether Erica’s actualization comes clear through the season finale, though all the white-light cinematography and caftan sweaters suggest that she’s ready to move on to the other side. The last season of Being Erica rested on a cliffhanger as Kai comes from the future to warn Erica that she might die eight years later in the dreaded “Union Station bomb attacks of 2019.” Spurned by the threat of death, Erica writes a bucket list and starts a fiction division at her publishing company.
Life is unpredictable, and all you can do is live moment to moment; lesser art than Being Erica has taught us this.