Today is Canada Day! Now, some might claim that the most famous bit of Canada is the Mounties, or the moose, or Jim Carrey. But there’s a strong case to be made for the locations in and around Vancouver, which have been the backdrops for some of the most successful cult TV shows of the last couple of decades. Here on IWG, we’re here to count you through some of the top American TV shows to film north of the border.
Most of the science-fiction TV from the last couple of decades owes a lot to The X Files. While other shows might have used the same tropes, The X Files was the first one to really popularise the notion of mixing science-fiction into the real world, along with a healthy dose of humour, strong characters and conspiracy theories. But more than any character tropes, The X Files popularised filming science-fiction shows in Canada. Its first five seasons were filmed in Vancouver, until production moved to Los Angeles in order to accommodate David Duchovny. Unfortunately, that corresponded with a downturn in ratings (not that Canada was essential to the show’s success, but, y’know).
Highlander: The Series
This series about Immortals battling each other with swords in the Nineties was half set in the fictional “Seacouver”. Filmed in Vancouver, at first the producers set the series in the USA by naming places nearby as part of the Washington area. Later, they named the city Seacouver in honour of its real home and the fake home of Seattle. Rather than the grimy darkness of Highlander the movie’s New York setting, this is quite a bright, every-city kind of setting.
The fact that Vancouver can be made to look unremarkable is also why it was used for filming Smallville. It might seem strange to make a show about Superman, America’s most American superhero, in Canada, but the city offered a more mid-American vibe than the other potential location of Australia. Towns like Merritt, Aldergrove and Cloverdale combined to create Smallville itself, with Hatley Castle (location star of the X-Men films) portraying the exterior of Lex Luthor’s mansion. The interior shots were filmed at Shannon Mews in Vancouver, a location also used for...
After making Titanic and not getting to make Spider-Man, James Cameron created Dark Angel, a cyber-punk drama set in 2019 Seattle. But just like Highlander, the producers found that Vancouver makes a pretty good double for the Washington city. But Dark Angel used Vancouver’s seedier side, the bits of the surrounding area that could make you believe that this was a city in the post-apocalyptic, not-too-distant future. Partly, that was by filming it mostly in shadows.
Supernatural, though, takes the cake for dimly lighting bits of Canada. Over its many seasons, it’s used multiple locations including Buntzen Lake, Cleveland Dam, and Riverview Hospital (the most filmed location in Canada, because there’s no location like a former mental health facility). But a lot of Supernatural filming also takes place on an abandoned military base, where the remaining roads are perfect to set up scenes taking place in the back end of nowhere.
But it’s not like Canada always has to play other cities in the USA. Sometimes, the countryside gets to portray alien planets, like in Stargate. That did then mean that SG1 suffered from slight Doctor Who syndrome, although instead of most of the planets resembling Welsh quarries, it was “Trees, trees, and more trees. What a wonderfully green universe we live in, eh?” (Colonel O’Neill, “Demons”). SG1 also added to its Canadian cred by casting lots of Canadian actors, including Amanda Tapping and Michael Shanks in its main cast, albeit as American characters (Stargate would eventually get its Canadian character in Dr Rodney McKay).
Battlestar Galactica was admittedly mostly set on ships, given that the entire premise of the show featured humanity on the run from Cylons. But an entire series set on a ship would be dull. So, like in Stargate, the woods of British Columbia were disguised as the woods of another planet. Amongst a succession of Vancouver landmarks appearing as parts of Caprican cities, the Orpheum Theatre was repurposed as the ruined opera house on Kobol. It’s possibly the second most significant location in BSG, featuring in several prophetic visions of the series finale.
Most of the shows on this list have been science fiction or fantasy, but other genres in American TV have also moved north of the border. Hannibal might use establishing shots of Baltimore to pretend that it’s set in Maryland, but it also uses some of the most recognisable buildings in Toronto. Maybe only Toronto residents would notice the University of Toronto campuses that keep popping up, but most Canadians would recognise the Canada-only supermarket No Frills doubling as a “Baltimore” shop. Given its filming location, it's almost a wonder that the nightmare stag wasn't a moose.
Which shows have we missed? “Once Upon A Time”? “Fringe”? “Orphan Black”? Let us know in the comments!