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New executive producer brings edgier element to Showcase hit ‘Billable Hours’

TORONTO (CP) _ Canadian Frank van Keeken spent 10 years in Hollywood as a television writer and actor before deciding to give up the hectic pace of Tinseltown and come home.

But not to another bustling city like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver or Calgary _ van Keeken and his family moved from Los Angeles to the peaceful town of Stratford, Ont., so that their teenaged son could start high school in a safe environment and the couple could board their two Icelandic horses at a nearby farm instead of the cramped stalls of Burbank.

"We moved to Stratford sight unseen," Van Keeken, the new executive producer of Showcase’s "Billable Hours," premiering Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. ET, said in an interview Wednesday. "We were both born in southwestern Ontario, so we really responded to it and were drawn to it."

It seems a strangely bucolic home base for the man behind "Billable Hours," an urban sitcom set in a dysfunctional, dog-eat-dog Toronto corporate law office that features three soulless friends, played gleefully by Fabrizio Filippo, a co-creator of the show, Brandon Firla and Jennifer Baxter.

The show is a successful one for Showcase already _ it achieved the highest ratings for a premiere episode of any of the channel’s original series when it launched last year.

But when van Keeken, despite so much downtime spent enjoying the rural simplicities of Stratford and its surroundings, was approached to be the so-called show-runner of "Billable Hours" for its second season, he wanted to make the show even edgier.

"Some would say dark, I would just say more realistic," says van Keeken, who has worked as a writer on "Mad About You" and "Kids in the Hall" and once appeared on "Seinfeld."

"I think one of the glories of Canadians in understanding comedy is that we understand irony … but yes, I thought the show could be darker, and I took it in a much darker direction."

If the first two episodes of the second season are any indication, van Keeken has achieved his goal. The first episode opens with one of the partners inadvertently hurling himself though the window of the law firm’s skyscaper office in an attempt to prove to his colleagues how strong the glass is _ a demise that echoes an actual incident in Toronto a decade ago.

Van Keeken laughingly described the scene as "a fun way to write a character off."

Episode Two involves Baxter’s character, Robin, faking a pregnancy to get special treatment at the office, only to prompt an enraged Sam (Filippo) to fake breast cancer to get to second base with one of his female colleagues.

All in all, it’s "Seinfeld," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" territory _ a long overdue direction for Canadian television, van Keeken says. He points to another Showcase show, "Trailer Park Boys," as a pioneer on that front.

"I remember seeing Trailer Park Boys in L.A., and saying: ‘Oh my God, they finally did it! Canada finally has this great thing that they could send anywhere in the world and it would work.’ It’s so funny, so character-based _ those characters live in the world that they live in, and if you honour that, I don’t think you ever need to worry."

Same goes for the characters on "Billable Hours," van Keeken says.

"These people are very miserable and yet they are not apologetic, they don’t whine about it … their world is very urbane, these are sophisticated, smart people who make money and have a lot of disposable income. It’s a urban comedy so we wanted to push those boundaries and explore it and have as much fun as possible."

Van Keeken also wanted to bring some of what he learned as a TV writer in the U.S. to the fore _ despite not wanting to live there anymore, he says, his time in the Los Angeles showed him the smart way to produce sitcoms that’s far different from the way it’s usually done in Canada.

"In the past up here it’s always been one or two creators that outsource all the scripts and then you get this very disparate voice that doesn’t really know the show," he says.

"I was able to bring an American sitcom model into the writing process. All these episodes are not just written by one or two story editors and then all the scripts are out-sourced. I put together a room of eight writers, the best minds I could find, and we have become this homogenous organic beast, this room that really can generate great material. We became a family that will reunite again next season."