From Toronto to Westeros: How Canada gave birth to TV’s after-show craze

By Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The TV after show is certainly no afterthought these days.

Ratings for “Talking Dead,” the interactive recap show that follows episodes of AMC’s megahit “The Walking Dead,” typically rank higher than some of the biggest titles on TV. AMC also cashed in on big audiences for “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” and “Fear the Walking Dead” by developing “Talking” after shows for those series.

Last year, Space launched “After the Black” for the Toronto-shot sci-fi series “Orphan Black” (it was also picked up by BBC America for the show’s current fourth season) and HBO recently launched “After the Thrones” to tap into the insatiable interest in “Game of Thrones.”

It’s clear the genre is thriving. And to think — it all seems to have started 10 years ago in Toronto, at MTV Canada.

“I think it was the first,” Jessi Cruickshank says confidently of “The After Show” that she and Dan Levy hosted on the channel from 2006 to 2010.

Back then, Cruickshank was fresh out of the University of Toronto, where she graduated with honours on a full scholarship. When her boss asked her to watch DVDs of the breezy teen reality show “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” her reaction was: “I hate it. These vapid teenagers are sending a damaging message to young people. I don’t want any part of it.”

“He says, ‘Well that’s too bad, because you’re going to be doing a show where you talk about the ‘Laguna Beach’ episode every Friday night,” Cruickshank recalls. “I thought this was the worst punishment any human could put upon me.”

She says the channel was just trying to meet its federal broadcast obligation to air a certain amount of Canadian content. She and Levy sat on pillows on the floor with martinis and guest commentators, providing bon mots on the show. At times, they weren’t even looking at the right camera.

“Nobody thought anybody would watch, the first few months,” says the comical Cruickshank, the Calgary-born correspondent for CTV’s “eTalk” who also hosts “Canada’s Smartest Person” on CBC.

Some of the guests weren’t shy with the martinis, and one imbiber said something “so — I think it was vulgar — inappropriate, that she actually lost her job,” says Cruickshank. “Maybe that was the first inkling that people were actually watching.”

And indeed, they were.

For the “Laguna Beach” finale, “The After Show” producers decided to shoot it in front of a live studio audience and were shocked when thousands of fans lined up outside MTV Canada headquarters, prompting police to shut down part of Yonge Street.

That led to the debut of “The Hills After Show” in June 2006, in which Cruickshank and Levy provided tongue-in-cheek commentary about the oh-so-serious lives of the series’ comely young adults in Los Angeles.

Thousands of screaming fans descended on the studio weekly and even “The Hills” cast members admitted to watching. “The After Show” became such a hit, MTV in the U.S. started broadcasting it in August 2007.

Thus spawned the after-show craze. It’s not surprising why after shows became the next big thing on TV, says “Damien” showrunner Glen Mazzara, who previously executive produced “The Walking Dead.”

“I’ll tell you why: they’re cheap,” says Mazzara.

“It’s a very, very cheap spin-off, in a sense. You have a built-in audience.”

It also adds to the brand and will probably “outperform anything else that’s going to run right after” the main series,” he adds.

Ajay Fry, co-host of “After the Black,” also points to the rise of genre content in cinema and TV. Sci-fi, supernatural and superhero shows present “strong moral challenges” that beg to be dissected in an after show.

“‘Orphan Black’ is a lot about body autonomy and issues of feminism, the crux of faith versus science — these are heavy things and people want to talk about these issues,” says Fry, who also hosts “InnerSpace” on Space.

The key is having guests and hosts who are as passionate about the show as the fans are, says Fry, who has also hosted several other after shows on Space.

“Because really, an after show is much like sports talk radio. You’ve got to have genuine enthusiasm for the content that the people are discussing on the show.”

Cruickshank thinks being Canadian also helped their success.

“When we were watching these kids on ‘Laguna Beach’ or these young adults in L.A., we had such an outsider perspective,” she says.

“I had maybe spent a week of my life in California. I didn’t know what that lifestyle was. So we had this great separation, as did our viewers.”

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