Third-episode verdict: Cardinal (Canada: CTV/Super Écran; UK: BBC Four)

The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 2

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

Cardinal is now big news in the UK. With a lot of the ‘world shows’ I review, particularly Canadian ones, I don’t usually expect them to ever end up on UK TV by normal means, although that’s slowly been changing. But Canada’s CTV isn’t really a network that the UK acquires from, so I had thought the chances were even slimmer that anyone but the most dedicated would get to see it outside Canada.

But as of Friday, Cardinal has become not just BBC Four’s first ever Canadian acquisition but, I think, UK TV’s first CTV acquisition. How extraordinary.

You can see from watching it why this would be. Unlike many CTV shows, Cardinal is beautifully made and more to the point, it’s Nordic/Canadian Noir that’ll slot ever so nicely into BBC Four’s Saturday night foreign crime drama schedule. 

Adapted from the first of Giles Blunt’s six ‘John Cardinal Mysteries’, Forty Words For SorrowCardinal sees Billy Campbell (Helix, The Killing (US), The Rocketeer) playing 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 AmRevenge).

Now the first episode is a tour de force, giving us a genuinely interesting slice of Canadian life in Algonquin Bay, a decent mystery to be solved and subtle performances from the main cast. After that, episode two is a bit of a climb down, consisting largely of people sitting in rooms talking. There’s still the show’s established feel for police procedure and shunning of glossy US police clichés in favour of the plausible and what’s affordable for a small Canadian police department. But it’s people sitting around talking.

Indeed, when the killers show up in episode two, you barely realise they’re the killers, it’s all so low key. It’s only in episode three that everything starts to become evident and the show becomes a cat-and-mouse game between Cardinal and his quarries. And it’s here that Cardinal and I might part ways, because although it’s still a beautifully crafted piece of work, something to which it owes a great deal of credit to director Podz, it’s still Nordic/Canadian Noir and we enter the realm of the dotty serial killer. As a genre trope, that’s fine, if you like that kind of thing, but I’m not a big fan of watching hours of outright sadism, even if it’s all very tastefully done.

The show’s also a little unfocused, with a key plot thread of the first three episodes being the question of whether Cardinal is a corrupt cop, with a covert internal investigation taking up rather a lot of the show’s time. Whether he is or he isn’t, Campbell’s Cardinal is so sad and joyless that it feels like kicking a man when he’s down to even be thinking it, and you can bet, thanks to the side-plot involving his sick wife, that there’s a sad reason for any corruption if it’s true.

Those reservations aside, if Nordic Noir is your thing, Cardinal is a very fine addition to the genre, as beautiful to watch as Ófærð (Trapped) and as well acted as Forbrydelsen (The Killing)


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.