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

Canadian Noir arrives

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 disappearance 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.