Television has unquestionably bypassed the silver screen in providing quality viewing entertainment, but many of the best dramas are aimed at adults. What I have for your consideration today, however, is a TV series that provides topnotch, wholesome entertainment for the entire family, including children from the age of 6 and up. Too good to be true, you say? Nay, nay, I say. This program is not just great; it’s also quite simply one of the finest series I’ve ever watched, and I’ve seen a gazillion of them.
On Oct. 14, 2007, “Heartland” made its debut on Canadian television (CBC), and it ultimately became the longest-running scripted series in the history of Canadian TV. In fact, it recently has been renewed for a 10th season. Based upon Lauren Brooke’s “Heartland” books (25 novels), the series tells the story of Amy Fleming (Amber Marshall), who lives on ranch near the fictional town of Hudson in Alberta, Canada, situated at the edge of the picturesque Alberta Rockies.
In the first show of the series we meet Amy, who is 15 years old, and her mother, Marion (Lisa Langlois), a legendary horse whisperer, as they are on their way home from rescuing a horse named Spartan from its abusive owner. Sadly they are involved in a terrible accident that kills Marion and seriously injures Amy and Spartan. This tragedy sets up the basic situation for the series: Amy and Spartan survive, and Amy, who has her mother’s gift for curing troubled horses, carries on the horse-whispering tradition.
After Amy fully recovers from the accident, she settles into life at Heartland with her grandfather Jackson “Jack” Bartlett (Shaun Johnston), who is the wonderfully sage voice of reason in the show and her older sister, Samantha Louise “Lou” (Michelle Morgan), who has just moved back to the ranch from New York City. She left behind a prestigious job and a boyfriend, but she realized Jack needed help managing Heartland.
Before Amy’s mother died, she had made arrangements for a young man named Tyler “Ty” Borden (Graham Wardle) to work as a ranch hand at Heartland. When Ty was just a child, his stepfather abused him, and when Ty became older, he attacked the man while he was assaulting his mother. As a result Ty ended up in Juvenile Hall, and Amy’s mother offered him the job at Heartland to help him fulfill the obligations of his probation.
In addition to these main characters, the following also are regulars in the series: Chris Porter as Timothy “Tim” Fleming, Amy and Lou’s estranged father and a former rodeo champion who at one point deserted his wife and daughters; Kerry James as Caleb O’Dell, a wannabe rodeo star Jack hires as a ranch hand; Gabriel Hogan as Peter Walter Marshall, a young oil tycoon who ultimately vies for Lou’s affection; Nathaniel Arcand as Scott Cardinal, the local veterinarian; Jessica Steen as Elizabeth “Lisa” Stillman, the wealthy owner of a horse-racing business who has romantic designs on Jack; and Jessica Amlee as MalloryWells, a young and amusingly mouthy neighbor who spends more time at Heartland than she does at home.
What makes the show so refreshing is it’s completely character driven, and thus we become totally wrapped up in the lives of Amy and her family. After Amy discovers that she has inherited her mother’s gift for working with troubled horses, she dedicates herself to helping people who have various problems with their horses. Hudson is a small town, and so word spreads rapidly about her gift.
But “Heartland” is much more than a girl healing the wounded psyches of horses. Above all else it is the story of a family living on a ranch and trying to make the best of their lives. After just the first episode, I was completely drawn into this show, and after watching a number of programs, I felt as if I knew these people personally.
Every single member of this terrific ensemble cast is so good that you never feel as if you are watching actors play a part. They are all so natural that it’s like observing a real family from somewhere they can’t see you. Of course because of the nature of the books much of the focus is on Amy, and Marshall was born to play this part. If you were to go to a dictionary and look up all-American girl, you would find her picture there. And she is such an accomplished rider that she actually becomes one with the horse in the scenes where she gallops across the breathtaking Canadian landscape.
Each episode advances the story line, and because it’s such an extended series, we have the chance to see the characters grow and mature. In an online interview Marshall explained how this factor sets “Heartland” apart from other shows.
“Something wonderful about ‘Heartland’ is that each character has room to grow and age. Development in a person in the real world happens daily as they learn new things, meet new people, and form new values. On some TV shows characters are restricted to a lot of growth due to the nature of the show. Take a look a show like ‘Degrassi’ or ‘Saved by the Bell.’ These characters are trapped in a high school realm and are unable to grow beyond.
“Amy has covered a lot of ground. When you’re a teenager, time seems to go slower, and a whole lot can happen in four years. Amy has had to overcome the death of her mother, learn to live with her high-maintenance sister, reunite with her father, fall in love with her best friend, then lose him, then earn his trust all over, work and develop her passion for healing horses, and mend ties with her friends Soraya and Ashley. There has been an incredible journey that our audiences have followed us through.”
When you watch this show, it’s also obvious that the actors are really enjoying themselves and that the chemistry among them is perfect. In the same interview, Fleming mentioned the closeness of the cast members are.
“It is funny how close you become to those you spend so much time with. I definitely feel like Michelle Morgan (Lou) is my sister and Shaun Johnston (Jack) is my grandfather. When all the Fleming/Bartlett characters have a dinner scene together, this becomes most prominent. We all laugh and joke and carry on just as a family would at the dinner table. Sometimes that makes it hard for the director when we are all giddy and happy right before a serious scene. I believe you have to have fun in order to make a great final product.”
Trust me when I tell you that this show has it all – drama, humor, love, loss, hope, despair, mystery, and anything else you can think of. And the cinematography defies adequate description. I have never been as completely captivated by a series as I am with this one, and it earns the final score of an irreversible 10+. Once you visit “Heartland,” you’ll never want to leave.