On Don McKellar’s Sensitive Skin (2014)

by Jacqueline Valencia

I’ve been accused of loving Toronto too much. In these dire times, with the way the city is run, it’s hard to keep loving a city that will either drive you out or eat you up whole. Born and raised here (my parents decided to take my sister and I to Dallas when we were kids and we all came running back a year and a half later), will always be my home. And as a Canadian, many local shows and even American shows are filmed here. It’s a treat to point out different Toronto streets posing as Chicago or New York City. You will rarely find a Torontonian that doesn’t point out, “this was filmed in Toronto.”

The black comedy-drama Sensitive Skin showed up on netflix recently and I decided to give it a spin. It is an adaptation of a British show of the same name and here it is beautifully written by Bob Martin. I had no idea it was set, but I’m a big fan of Kim Cattrall‘s, so it wasn’t a hard decision to click play. Surprise to me it was set in my city, a sepia form played out in specific sections of its body. Cattrall’s character, Davina, walks out of a pharmacy, an old white shop into a painted up shop of similar form, only painted up red. A hipster hair salon for a change because she is depressed, and in need for a change. The show focuses on Davina and her husband Al (Don McKellar), married for 30 years, who have moved from the affluent surburb of Lawrence Park, to a loft style condo on hip College Street. Al is a hypochondriac, a self-aware eccentric who parses the world out loud to Davina. Davina is in crisis, and I don’t want to give away too much, but she is undergoing a lot of changes that happen to many women in middle age. After all the stuff earlier, who am I now?

In this version of Toronto, the city becomes a metaphor for the characters in this story. Davina considers changes, while her sister, Veronica’s (played by the underrated Joanna Gleason) life quickly disintegrates as well for other reasons. As lives take their twists and turns, so does Toronto. With every scene set in a neighbourhood that still has quaint mom and pop shops, signs for sleek condos pop up beside them or across the street. The colour in what looks like old school Toronto (filmed in both west and east ends), is muted, while the signs for new developments are infused with colour and so is the graffiti or street art around them. So it’s all kind of downtown, but not. There are no scenes set in Bloor or Yonge Street, or at least from what I could gather. Toronto seems held under glass while development takes a slow ice pick to it.

I live downtown by the water so these changes are extremely palpable, especially since I’ve spent most of my life in the corners of Jane -Finch/Lawrence-Keele, which are new immigrant areas that are seeing new changes now with the dawn of transportation hubs (metrolinx). Everything downtown is different. The headshops and arcades are gone and the once popular Canadian chicken place across from Zanzibar (which used to be a hub for jazz, but is forever a strip club), is gone. We have a lit up Times Square area that used to be just a meeting place and condos, condos, condos.

In Sensitive Skin, Davina and the rest of the characters go through changes that are beyond their control. The basics of aging, death, realizations of past regret, and the almost impossibilities for a hope for an actual future beyond becoming invisible with age, come to the forefront. And as citizens of a city undergoing these same things with local leadership in chaos, I can’t help but feel a strong relatability to this show.

And then there are scenes set in the communities in Centre Island. These are old homes and boat houses, acquired and bought through a lottery. An artists’ residency, school, and community centre exist there, outside of the amusement of Centreville and the island beaches. It seems like an accessible life in the show, (it is not, for it is heavily regulated), but it is one of those rare communities (mostly through elite NIMBY ways) that hold a leverage over possible changes. You don’t choose to live on the island. You win a lottery or it’s passed on to you.

At one point one of the characters just ends up living the idyllic life of the island that’s still part of the city. The novelty of it mentioned by everyone who visits this character. The city’s skyline is right in front of the home. It’s a love letter to the facade of the Toronto that existed once and the one that we are forced to get to know or isolate ourselves from. In one scene, Al decides to take the streetcar instead of his vintage Jaguar, to experience “the glory of living downtown.” It takes forever to arrive. Al asks a fellow commuter, “Is this normal? It’s been twenty minutes.”

Fellow commuter: “Well, yeah, it never comes.”

Al: “What do you mean it never comes?”

Commuter: “You wait and you wait, and it never comes. It’s a joke.”

Al: “Well, it must come eventually, there are tracks here.”

Commuter: “See, here’s the thing. Yuppies from the burbs, they come here and they move into their high-price glass boxes. Now the core is crammed full with these rich idiots and nu-uh, it doesn’t function anymore.”

Sensitive Skin takes a magnifying glass to a city and the lives within it. Both city and people don’t know who they are, even though life changes them regardless of who they choose to be. My heart soared and sank throughout watching this show. I might foolishly fight myself forever to never leave here. I highly recommend it.

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