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Esprit Critique hosts Marc Cassivi, Rebecca Makonnen champion the critic

Esprit Critique hosts Marc Cassivi, Rebecca Makonnen champion the critic
MONTREAL, QUE.: JANUARY 6, 2016 -- Marc Cassivi and Rebecca Makonnen, hosts of the new TV show Esprit Critique, in Montreal, on Wednesday, January 6, 2016, which airs on ARTV. (Dave Sidaway / MONTREAL GAZETTE) | Photograph by: Dave Sidaway , Montreal Gazette

It sometimes seems like serious cultural criticism is a relic from a bygone age. Thoughtful analytical writing or broadcast commentary on music and film is harder and harder to find in mainstream media, replaced by gushing celebrity profiles, gossipy news stories and cheerleading masquerading as criticism.

Even here in Quebec, where folks take culture more seriously than elsewhere, there is a distinct lack of in-depth cultural coverage. There hasn’t been a critical show covering culture on TV since the Radio-Canada TV bosses yanked Six dans la cité off its schedule in the spring of 2011. It’s actually kind of astonishing to think that there hasn’t been a regular show covering Quebec or international culture on the French-language public broadcaster in almost five years.

But that has finally changed. Esprit critique made its debut on the Radio-Canada-owned specialty arts channel ICI ARTV on Thursday night and it will also air weekly on ICI Radio-Canada Télé on Sundays at 5 p.m. La Presse arts columnist and go-to cultural commentator Marc Cassivi came up with the idea for the show three years ago. Cassivi has often appeared on ICI Radio-Canada Première, the franco equivalent of Radio One, and on, but he realized what was missing on the Québécois TV landscape was a good smart show about the arts.

So he contacted his old pal Rebecca Makonnen, who has loads of TV experience and currently hosts the mid-morning show on Radio-Canada’s radio network ICI Musique, and asked if she’d liked to co-host the show with him. She immediately dug the idea and so began Esprit critique. Cassivi was originally in discussions with Dominique Chaloult, who was running Télé-Québec at the time, and the show ended up with Radio-Canada and ARTV when Chaloult moved over in late 2014 to become head of TV at Radio-Canada.

The idea was to produce something that would not be a conventional culture show along the lines of Flash, for years the marquee entertainment magazine show in Quebec, or etalk in English Canada.

“It could disappoint those expecting a cultural magazine that reviews what’s coming out this week,” Cassivi said. “It’s more like where we debate questions about culture and society.”

On the first show, which aired Thursday, comics Guillaume Wagner and Cathy Gauthier debated the notion of whether some topics should simply be off-limits for comics. Are you allowed to make jokes about a child abduction, for example? The other debate segment featured Quebec filmmakers Micheline Lanctôt and Ricardo Trogi weighing in on the totally pertinent question – “Le cinéma québécois est-il en dépression?” (The short answer? I’d say – Yes. Less dark films, please!) The first show also featured longtime Rad-Can radio and TV host René Homier-Roy, a seasoned critic, talking about – what else? – cultural criticism.

This Thursday’s show will feature Cassivi interviewing Louis Morissette, the writer/actor/producer who also happens to run KOTV, the company that produces Espace critique. Cassivi and Morissette have had their disputes over the years and those scuffles will likely resurface Thursday, according to Cassivi.

The other regular contributor is Fabien Cloutier, the award-winning playwright and actor, who will deliver colour commentary every now and then during the one-hour show, kind of like a commentator during a hockey broadcast. That was one of the highlights of the first show, with Cloutier happily skewering both Cassivi and Makonnen.

“It won’t be the good old review show,” Cassivi said.

“It’s not Siskel and Ebert,” added Makonnen, referring to the long-running movie review TV show featuring the late critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.

“I liked Siskel and Ebert,” chimed in Cassivi.

“Sure it was good back then, but let’s look ahead,” Makonnen said.

“I’m like the nostalgic type,” Cassivi said.

The show will play on those stereotypes – Cassivi as the seasoned critic, Makonnen as more of the hipster.

”I’m the cool hip young one and he’s the lovable curmudgeon,” said Makonnen, with a laugh.

Cassivi and Makonnen want to maintain their critical credibility but at the same time they don’t want to be confrontational. The most famous cultural TV show of the past few decades in Quebec was Rad-Can gab-fest La bande des six, where part of the format was to have the critics blast the artists’ work while the poor artist watched live on TV. Then they’d interview him or her. That won’t be happening on Esprit critique.

You could see that in the first show. Cassivi and Makonnen were pushing controversial funnyman Wagner a bit regarding his offensive jokes but they weren’t too aggressive about it.

“I’m not sure that that kind of confrontational journalism that we saw on La bande des six can still be done today,” Cassivi said. “You’d be able to book guests for two weeks and then no one else would come on the show. We don’t want to create a malaise. But we want to say things as honestly as possible.”


Esprit critique airs on ICI ARTV Thursday at 8 p.m. and on ICI Radio-Canada Télé Sunday at 5 p.m. or watch online here:

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