David Russell

The end of "Complaint Department"
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Show's finale a reason to complain: The hosts of Cable 4's Complaint Dept. are moving on to other things. You can bet their viewers will whine about it.
Alex Strachan. The Vancouver Sun.
July 25, 1998
No wonder everybody's so angry nowadays. In keeping with this TV season of signoffs, goodbyes and final episodes, the cult cable classic Complaint Dept. will field the gripes, whines and beefs of Vancouver and Lower Mainland TV viewers one last time, Sunday at 8 p.m. on Rogers Community 4.

Hosts Dave Russell and Kelly Phelan will say their final goodbyes after seven years of listening to the moans and groans of their disaffected viewers. Dozens of those viewers would phone Complaint Dept. live on Sunday nights to gripe about everything from militant cyclists to drunken louts using fireworks nights as an excuse to trash the West End.

For the most part, these complaints were the kind of ancillary nerd anger spun off from the primal rage we all carry around with us.

Complaint Dept.'s demise will do nothing to alleviate that rage. If more people seem demonstrably angry in the coming weeks, it just might be because one of the few remaining safety valves for blowing off steam has been slammed shut.

"Maybe people will start talking to their spouses now," Russell said facetiously. "I think they were in the habit of talking to us instead."

For once, ratings didn't play a role in a show's demise. Public-access cable shows like Complaint Dept. don't have to rely on advertising dollars to survive, which makes them the purest form of television -- TV generated by and reflective of the community in which it is made.

The real reason for Complaint Dept.'s closure is that the hosts have decided to move on: Russell to high-school teaching duties in Port Moody and improv work with Vancouver's TheatreSports comedy troupe, Phelan to her job as marketing director and concert promoter for Paul Mercs Concerts.

To turn an old phrase from Network, they're tired of being mad as hell and they don't want to take it any more.

Russell will be the first to tell you it's one angry community out there. "Believe me, I've met the poster children for birth control." Society's snap factor is so high you're liable to get beaten to death with a canned ham in the supermarket just because your cart rear-ended some frustrated, psycho, Ninja-wannabe's cart and you broke the head off one of his animal crackers.

As comedian Dennis Miller noted in The Rants, his 1997 book collection of late-night TV monologues, society is in the grip of a collective temper tantrum of frightening proportions. At this rate, we're just days away from having to install metal detectors in church.

"I was asked recently whether people are getting less polite and the answer is absolutely," Russell says. "They're absolutely getting less polite. "I think it comes from high-density living, There are just too many of us in one spot. That makes great TV. But from pretty much any other point of view, it's a pain."

Complaint Dept. was entertaining not only for the unfettered rage of its callers -- the broadcasts were live and not immune from the occasional, sudden burst of colourful language -- but for Russell and Phelan's easy-going, casual advice about how to calm down. "I agree with you" was a familiar refrain. So was "Get a grip."

One of the more unfortunate consequences of being so peaceable was the occasional death threat that would follow in the mail, prompting, for Russell at least, uncomfortable flashbacks to Oliver Stone's film Talk Radio. "We only had a couple of people that we actually sent the police to talk to. We had one fellow who scanned our images off his TV -- I don't know how he did it, I guess with his computer -- drew the sights of a rifle over our faces and sent it to us. That kind of thing tends to get your attention."

People are angry because they feel overlooked, undervalued and inconsequential, and when they feel they don't matter any more, it's easy to flip off the mental safety catch. Sounding off to Complaint Dept. was one of the few ways people could vent their rage without being put on hold indefinitely, rerouted through a maze of electronic voice-mail boxes or fitted for a padded cell.

Complaint Dept. will be missed. And if you cut me off in traffic tonight, you're a dead man.