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January 26, 2017

Review: Cardinal 1x1 (Canada: CTV/Super Écran; UK: BBC Four)

Posted on January 26, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Cardinal

In Canada: Wednesdays, 10 pm ET/PT, CTV
In Canada (en Français): Thursdays, 10pm, Super Écran
In the UK: Acquired by BBC Four for broadcast in 2017

Nordic Noir has been a staple of our airwaves for almost exactly a decade now  - ever since Forbydelsen (The Killing) hit our screens in 2007, in fact. What exactly makes something a Nordic Noir? It seems an obvious question - a Noir-esque drama made in the Nordic regions - but if you Theseus paradox the whole situation, suddenly it's not quite as clear.

For example, can a country outside the Nordic regions make a Nordic Noir? It seems so. After all, UK made its own version of the Wallander stories, and we've gone on to make Fortitude, The Tunnel (Tunnel) and Y Gwyll (Hinterland), all of which seem to be as close to Nordic Noir as you can get without everyone speaking a Scandinavian language - at least before Fortitude went a bit bonkers and sci-fi.

However, The Killing (US), Those Who Kill and The Bridge (US) were almost identikit versions of the originals yet still didn't have the feel of Nordic Noir, so clearly there's something in the country of origin and the US doesn't seem to have it. But how about Canada, which like the UK and the Scandinavian countries seems so lovely and calm and dull on the exterior but is possibly a seething mass of darkness underneath all the bad weather? 

Enter Cardinal to help us test the paradox further. 

Based on the first of Giles Blunt's six 'John Cardinal Mysteries', Forty Words For Sorrow, the series stars Billy Campbell (Helix, The Killing (US), The Rocketeer) as the eponymous Cardinal, a Canadian police detective in the fictional Algonquin Bay, who investigates the disppearance of a young girl. Unable to find her, he goes off the rails and is demoted, but a year later, the body of the girl turns up and he is reassigned to what is now a murder case, working alongside new recruit Karine Vanasse (Pan Am, Revenge).

It would be tempting to think of this as a Canadian version of Forbydelsen (The Killing) and the rest of its ilk, since many of the hallmarks of the genre are all present and correct: troubled investigator; cunning serial killer; general sadness, isolation, coldness and gloominess; and a thorough mining of the emotions of death, particularly the death of a child, and its effects on a community. 

But I think comparisons would be misleading since although it is still a Nordic Noir, this is very much a show creating its own sub-genre: Canadian Noir. Beautifully shot in the Ontario winter, this is clearly a Canadian show with Canadian concerns. The police are obviously Canadians, not Americans in disguise, right down to the RCMPs. The Québécoise Vanasse not only is allowed to keep her accent, she is actually playing a Québécoise rather than a French woman for a change. The missing girl is a First Nation child and some of the first episode is dedicated to whether she receive a traditional First Nation or a Christian funeral or not. 

The show's attempts at accurate depiction of Canadian police work also place it in the same court as the outstanding 19-2, which might now perhaps be considered a prototype of Canadian Noir. As well as being directed by Podz, who directed both the French version of the show, as well as the outstanding single-take tracking shot in the English-language version…

…19-2 has a similar, major theme: (spoiler) an internal investigation of the lead character by the partner. Whether that'll become a defining feature of Canadian Noir remains to be seen.

The show's high production values, general timbre, decent acting, beautiful direction and beautiful location filming do go a long way to cover up the fact that the plot itself is a bit hackneyed. Sure, there are variations from the standard clichés, with Cardinal's deep dark secret involving his wife turning out to be unique for a detective show. But it's a serial killer being chased by an obsessed, unhappy cop, rather than a content family man tracking down a white collar fraudster between the hours of nine to five on weekdays. It's not that innovative.

All the same, Cardinal is the best new drama out of Canada since 19-2 and a worthy addition to the Nordic Noir catalogue. Fingers crossed for a UK airing.

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January 20, 2017

Review: Six 1x1 (US: History)

Posted on January 20, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Six (History)

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, History
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Why is it that dramas about Special Forces aren't that special? On the face of it, making an exciting show about the Special Forces shouldn't be that difficult. As A Bit of Fry and Laurie once pointed out, the SAS (and presumably other Special Forces) exist purely to be masturbatory fantasies for backbench MPs, so putting together a TV show involving Special Forces should inevitably result in something very exciting and, erm, climactic.

Yet, whether it's Ultimate Force, The Unit, Strike Back or now Six, somehow the resulting shows never quite hit the spot - they're close, but they're never really as satisfying as you think they'll be.

Six is interesting in this regard. Ten years ago, if you'd made a show called Six, the most anyone would guess you were doing was remaking The Prisoner. But thanks to their sterling work in dealing with Osama Bin Laden, the US Navy's SEAL Team 6 is the latest pin-up of the Special Forces world. That means you can call a TV show Six and it'll induce as much Pavlovian tumescence as if you'd called it Scarlett.

Trouble is, despite this launchpad, Six is all tease, no pay-off. The first episode follows a SEAL Team 6 team to a mission in Afghanistan where there's plenty of shooting and leader Walton Goggins (Justified, Vice Principals, The Hateful Eight) starts to blur a few boundaries by shooting prisoners. Two years later, Goggins is out of the SEALs and in Africa, working for a private contractor, while the rest of the team are thinking about doing something similar and/or having problems with their wives and/or the bottle and/or money.

Then Boko Haram come along and kidnap a group of school girls, as well as Goggins, and the team are pulling themselves back together to rescue him. 

Six takes all the worst bits of The Unit and few of the best bits. It tries to mix up the personal and the military, but without having any idea how to create distinguishable characters, particularly not women, who are a never-ending parade of "why aren't you here for me and your children?"

Which might almost be excusable if it could do action, except it can't. Shoot-outs and action scenes are surprisingly few and far between, and when they turn up, they're nothing special. Name an action TV show, any action TV show - you'll have seen better and something probably more realistic. 

But even little details let the show down. Maybe it's me, but giving your SEAL team the radio sign of "Delta 1" is only going to lead to confusion in the audience. And sure, kudos for managing to go with Boko Haram as your main bad guys, rather than ISIS (although a reveal at the end of the first episode shows Six is trying to have its cake and eat it), but having to have an officer explain to one of the world's premier anti-terrorist units who Boko Haram are is not a way to create verisimilitude.

More importantly, Goggins is just wrong as the leader of the team. Not for a second can you picture him as either a morally ambivalent hero or a SEAL. Now to a certain extent, that's not his fault - he was brought in not merely at the last moment but two episodes of filming after the last moment, which is when Joe Manganiello walked off the show with health problems. You can imagine Manganiello as "Rip Taggart":

Joe Manganiello

Goggins?

Walton Goggins

Not so much.

It's like casting Vinny Jones as a wedding cake designer - it's simply not believable. So even though the rest of the cast of SEALs are (indistinguishable) butch manly types who look the part, little seems plausible as a result of Goggins' presence.

If you have to watch a Special Forces show, there were at least a few good episodes of The Unit (Dark of the Moon is excellent) and Strike Back, so stick with them rather than Six, since Six won't have yours. Six that is.

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January 12, 2017

Review: Pure 1x1 (Canada: CBC)

Posted on January 12, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Pure

In Canada: Mondays, 9pm, CBC

Everyone knows about the Amish, right? They're the German-speaking, pacifist Christian fundamentalists who shun all things modern in an effort to be as godly as possible. You may remember them from a little known 80s film called Witness.

Less well known unless you watch a lot of reality TV are their neighbours, the Mennonites, an equally German-speaking, God-fearing group although they aren't quite as strict as the Amish - they can own cars, go to High School on the school bus and mix with the Ausländer and everything.

But even less well known than them are the Canadian Mennonites, a bunch who fled to Ontario from the US when the War of Independence broke out. And oddly enough, they're the stars of CBC's new drama - a sort of Breaking Bad for Mennonites. It stars the ubiquitous Ryan Robbins (Continuum, Arrow) as the delightfully named Noah Funk, the newly appointed pastor of the (fictious) Mennonite town of Antioch who has to work out how to deal in a Christian manner with what seems extremely unlikely to the casual viewer but turns out to be based on a true story - the Mennonite mob, a group of dangerous drug runners ferrying cocaine from Mexico to Canada and the US.

The mob have killed one family escaping from a Mexican Mennonite 'colony' and when Funk takes in the surviving young son, he ends up having to deal with both the mob and slobby cop AJ Buckley (CSI: New York), who's after this previously unsuspected snake in the community. Also involved is Texan DEA Agent Rosie Perez (Do The Right Thing, White Men Can't Jump), who's well aware of what's going on with the Mennonites, both in El Paso and on the other side of the border.

Watching Pure, it's hard to know exactly how realistic the Mennonite side of things is. Show creator Michael Amo is the grandson of a Mennonite, for sure, but every bad accent and poor piece of German sets off warning claxons, and the whole idea boggles the mind to begin with, let alone when the Mennonite kids are wandering around school, working out the intricacies of 'Auslander' (non-Mennonite) life and whether it's okay to say 'My God' as an expletive.

The criminal side of things is a bit pedestrian, too. Buckley's cop, intent on recruiting Funk to help him penetrate the close-knit mob, lacks any of the skills to do it yet still manages to accomplish it somehow. Surprisingly, for a godly man, Funk sure finds lying easy. And in general dramatic terms there are problem, too, with pretty much every Mennonite indistinguishable and undifferentiated from all the others, bar the nicely-hatted mob boss Peter Outerbridge (the original Murdoch in The Murdoch Mysteries, Blood and Water), who forces Funk to work for him to save his family. 

But all those issues to one side, as with Blood and Water and Shoot The Messenger, Canada is at least showing that it can offer crime shows that aren't just the same old formula and that involve different communities from those we're used to. I probably won't stick with it, but it's nice to know that the show's out there.

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