Andrew Phung's very Canadian family sitcom finding audience south of the border

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When the American show Access Hollywood recently ran a trailer for the Canadian family sitcom Run the Burbs host Mario Lopez showed enthusiasm for the show even if he was a bit confused geographically.

According to Andrew Phung, co-creator and star of the CBC series, the host of the entertainment news program said something along the lines of “Do you know what I love about this show? It’s that it’s just this regular American family … ”

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On the phone with Postmedia from his home in Toronto, Phung expresses some good-natured faux outrage over this faux pas. After all, Run the Burbs is a thoroughly Canadian enterprise. The Phams, the mixed-culture family led by Phung’s gregarious dad Andrew Pham, are a Canadian brood living in a Canadian suburb.

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Like fellow Great White North comedies that found audiences south of the border, including Schitt’s Creek and Phung’s old show, Kim’s Convenience, Run the Burbs is now being enjoyed by U.S. audiences after being picked up by the CW network in the summer and by Hulu, the American streaming service, a few weeks back. But that does not water down its inherent Canadianess.

Phung is already receiving fan mail from Americans who have watched the first two seasons on Hulu. Did they get that early reference to Degrassi Junior High class clown Joey Jeremiah? Maybe not.  But Phung says those giving feedback have been supportive if occasionally puzzled.

After the CW began airing Run the Burbs, Son of a Critch and Children Ruin Everything this summer, Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd wrote a positive piece about our shows, suggesting “Canadian series share a certain modesty, a naturalism, a simplicity, an amiability perhaps not unrelated to being produced outside the walls of Hollywood” before singling out the series premiere of Run the Burbs for its “cheerful spirit.”

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“There’s been a couple of times where Americans have been like ‘Is this a thing in Canada?’” says Phung. “And I say ‘Yeah, we’re much more progressive in certain areas. The way we have certain conversations and the way we talk about certain things is a bit different.’ I’m proud of this Canadian show recognizing the Canadian suburbs and how parents of this generation is playing (in the U.S.) but also finding an audience. People binging all two seasons in a day is wild to me. I got so many messages that said ‘When are we getting Season 3?’ I don’t know. You’re going to have to pace it out a little more.”

The good news for homegrown fans is that they can start watching Season 3 on Tuesday in Canada on CBC. As with all family sitcoms, there is a natural evolution to the series as the Pham children, Khia and Leo (played by Zoriah Wong and Roman Pesino) move into their teen years and perhaps become even less enthusiastic about their relentlessly enthusiastic father. When the series began, Andrew was a stay-at-home dad while his wife Camille (played by Rakhee Morzaria) attempted to kickstart her career as a food blogger. Fast-forward to Season 3 and both parents are now working while Camille’s somewhat overbearing South Asian father Ramesh (played by Ali Hassan) has moved into the Pham household. Episode 1 has the family struggling to find a work-life-family balance with both parents holding down demanding jobs. In the second episode, the Phams go to extreme measures to find a new family doctor after their physician retires. 

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“Andrew was a stay-at-home dad and now he has a full-time job while his kids are at these pretty fundamentally important ages of 16 and 13,” Phung says. “So it’s see how that plays out.”

Phung and his wife have two boys who, at age nine and six, are still a ways away from going through the adolescent growing pains Khia and Leo go through in Season 3. But while the show may heighten situations for comedic effect, Phung says they are always grounded in reality and are often drawn from his life or the lives of other writers and producers, including those dealing with teenage children.

Some segments hit closer to home for Phung. For instance, he says he is “always mentally preparing for the day our parents move in with us.” Searching for a family doctor is also a very relatable situation for Canadian parents.

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Phung and co-creator Scott Townend always saw Run the Burbs as a heartfelt if slightly exaggerated reflection of Phung’s family life growing up in Calgary’s northeast suburbs. In the cold open of episode 2, the Phams give Ramesh military-like marching orders on how to properly negotiate an expensive Asian-food buffet in a scene that reflects the Phung family’s philosophy on the matter. Episode 3 has the family heading out to cottage country. It’s another relatable experience for Canadian families, albeit one that the Phung family was ill-prepared for in real life.

“If you’re an Asian family, the cottage is a very foreign and unfamiliar place,” says Phung. “That is inspired by cottages in Ontario, but also the first time my family and I went camping. We were not prepared. We didn’t understand it. It’s a bit of a culture shock in discovering these purely Canadian moments.”

Season 3 of Run the Burbs begins Tuesday, Jan. 9 on the CBC.

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