Panenka scarves VII: Holy Robin, Batman!

Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.


A funny thing’s been happening to me over the last year or so. Every time someone – friend, student, or colleague – finds out I’m from Canada, they immediately reference one particular TV show.

When I first came to Europe (waaaaaay back in twenty aught eight) the trend was for someone to find out I was Canadian, and then immediately start referencing South Park, sing the occasional song from South Park, and then berate me with questions about why America makes fun of us.

It’s fun the first time, but quickly gets lame. Especially when you’re out trying to run game and some Turkish guy breaks into Blame Canada in the middle of the bar. It’s even worse when the rest of the place joins in…

Since moving to Prague the South Park references have ceased. Maybe it’s because Parker and Stone have laid off the Great White North lately. Maybe the show simply isn’t as popular in the Czech Republic. Whatever the case, another piece of American pop culture has taken over as the conduit through which the rest of the world learns about my home and native land.

How I Met Your Mother – the CBS sitcom featuring a Canadian character named Robin Scherbatsky (played by genuine Canadian Cobie Smulders) – has gained quite a lot of traction in this part of the world. A lot of this can be attributed to the syndication deals the program has out here, which ensure the sitcom is on several times a day, often in lucrative time slots.

In fact, in my travels over the last two years, I’ve watched foreign versions of the show (sometimes overdubbed, sometimes subtitled) in Finland, Poland, Russia, Germany, Slovenia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Not only is the show impossible to avoid abroad, but its popularity appears to be increasing.

A Sudbury Saturday night

In all honesty, I don’t mind explaining the truths and falsehoods of Scherbatsky’s Canada. I prefer it to the (almost) completely fabricated Canada that South Park has created over the years. A lot of this can be attributed to the impressive attention that the writing staff pays to the little details when ripping on Canada.

For every reference that I have to explain is completely made-up (Peculiar Jacques, McElroy and LaFleur) there are four or five scattered subtleties that only a Canadian could notice.

In a room full of Europeans, I’m the only one picking up on the fact that the Crash Test Dummies are being played when Robin walks into the Hoser Hut for the first time, that the Harvey’s trays portrayed are impressively accurate, and I don’t need to read the “Americanized” subtitles to tell you what a hydro bill or garburator are.

I mean, there are some real deep cultural cuts thrown in there at times.

Better still, for my friends who have never been to Canada, I like explaining that, yes, we have kids playing hockey on our five dollar bill, we will say sorry when you bump into us (even when it’s your fault), we love being asked about the Leafs game when we go to Tim Horton’s, and many of us do indeed throw on our favorite sweaters, talk about old hockey games, and get all “Super Canadian” after drinking a twelver of Molson.

I am first-hand proof that the last one is especially true when you’re a Canadian abroad.

TV critic Myles McNutt, who apart from having an awesome name, sums it up well when he says, “Robin Scherbatsky is not the first Canadian character on an American sitcom, but she is without question the first who has been provided a comprehensive sense of national identity within the framework of the series in question.”

The foundation of this national identity is so detail-oriented that there must be Canadians on the writing staff – otherwise the show possesses some incredibly meticulous researchers.

As a matter of fact, Guelph-born Chuck Tatham acts as a writer and producer on HIMYM. He’s written some of the more Canadian content heavy episodes (Little Minnesota, Duel Citizenship) and is said to be the Canadian joke arbitrator and leading authority on the nation.

But, with great power comes great responsibility and Taham has, perhaps unintentionally, single-handedly created a world-wide cultural stereotype of all Canadians. I refer, of course, to our perceived fear of the dark.

In what was most likely a throw-away joke that was never designed to gain traction, there is an episode Tatham penned that reveals Canadians to be afraid of the dark. For all the questions I’m asked about Canada, this is the one I get the most: Are you really afraid of the dark?

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I field this question at least once a week. This is especially true now, at the start of a new semester, when I’m assigned new groups of students and they find out I’m Canadian.

It doesn’t end at teenagers and twentysomethings either. I’ve had middle-aged students sheepishly ask me if Canadians are actually so scared of something silly like the dark.

It’s made me realize how powerful this show has become – to the point that the fear of the dark stereotype could very well ingrain itself into the minds of the majority of the television-watching audience outside our borders.

Granted, that’s really the only issue I have with Scherbatsky’s Canada, and after finding out that it originated from the mind of a fellow Canuck, I absolutely wonder if it was nothing more than a deliberate reference to Are You Afraid of the Dark?, a Canadian-produced TV program a majority of little hosers watched growing up.

I can’t recall this phobia ever being mentioned again in HIMYM, yet it’s the first thing most Czechs bring up. Truthfully, I genuinely enjoy watching everything else week after week.

After all, in a day in age when Canada is only in the news because our mediocre pop stars are marrying our embarrassingly horrible rock stars, or our hockey fans are burning down their own city because they lost at a children’s game, it’s kind of nice to see a part of our culture go global in a manner that doesn’t fill me with shame.

I’ll let Robin’s words from Little Minnesota sum up a point that I’m proud to see broadcast all over the world on a nightly basis:

“In Canada, people don’t care where you’re from as long as you’re friendly…and maybe loan them a smoke or hand over a donut.”

Still brings a tear to my eye.

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