Review: The Border 2×1

Spies among the maple leaves

The Border

In Canada: Mondays, 9pm, CBC

Not so long ago, there was a writers’ strike in the US. Faced with the unthinkable prospect of watching British television, I decided to have a look at some of the programmes available from other countries – in particular, Canada. CBC’s The Border was one such programme and to my incredible surprise, it turned out not just to be a good programme “by Canadian standards”* but a good programme, full stop.

Seemingly intended not just to demonstrate that Canadians easily have what it takes to make good TV but to show that they’re not all the liberals stereotypes would have us believe, The Border is a cross between Spooks and 24, right down to the shaky cam, with Canada’s heroic Immigration and Customs Service (ICS) defending the country against all kinds of threats – all of which seem to be American or Muslim.

Although by no means the best action-thriller series ever made, it was reasonably clever, albeit a touch low budget, and didn’t dumb itself down like Flashpoint did to attract an international audience. The inter-departmental conflict with Canada’s CSIS – the country’s equivalent of MI6 and the CIA – was interesting, even if it was cast in strictly black and white terms, with CSIS boss John Bennett (Forever Knight) almost twirling a moustache during every appearance. And the usual conclusions to stories were a touch, ahem, Canadian, with the villains either misunderstood or American.

But now it’s back after just six month’s absence – it was that popular – and changes are afoot.

Last season ended with not so much a cliffhanger as a scenario-changer, in which Victor Garber-alike Mike Kessler (James McGowan), still traumatised from his special forces days in Kosovo, decided to assassinate a former warlord hiding on Canadian soil under the watchful protection of CSIS. Except he doesn’t manage to since formerly under-used, strong, silent, black former-CSIS agent Darnell Williams (Jim Codrington) gets there first.

This episode, although ostensibly about some US army deserters crossing into Canada seeking asylum, really carries this thread on, rather than simply dumping it, and is going to form a big story thread this season, as Kessler tries to work out who shot the warlord – while Bennett tries to pin the crime on him. It’s an interesting twist that takes Williams away from being simple tokenism into being almost the most interesting character of the piece. The lack of dialogue and action that he gets to take part in look almost Eastwoodian as a result, rather than just insulting.

Other than that, though, it’s business as usual, with the various Canadian forces doing their level best to talk bad guys out of doing bad things, while Homeland Security agent Bianca LaGarda (CSI: Miami‘s Sofia Milos) glowers, makes threats and generally tries to subvert Canadian democracy on behalf of the US government.

If you go to the CBC web site and read the character bios, you’ll notice that there are big changes planned for the season, including a new Homeland Security character and a representative of MI6 due to take up residence on Canadian soil. There also appears to be scheduled some slightly irritating, soulless attempts at romantic tension** between the new arrivals and the existing characters.

The show is starting to feel ever so slightly a little same-old, same-old, and with ICS seemingly run by only about seven people, the show could do with a bigger budget for more cast members as well as decent action (here, mostly wasted on a pretty good Iraq war flashback). But there are promises of even more spy stuff this season, which always gets my vote, and it’s engrossing – possibly more for overseas viewers interested in Canadian methods of law enforcement and espionage than Canadians who might already know this stuff***.

It’s relatively easy to get into, even if you’ve never seen an episode before, and worth watching if you get a chance; it’s also a show that UK broadcasters would do well to have a look at, too, both for acquisition and emulation.

Here’s a YouTube promo and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the season.

* See my previous entry for an explanation of this comment
** Going by last season’s attempts at romance
*** Although I hand the floor over to those with alternative viewpoints