The key element of these mystery serieses is the hero, next is location, the third is the exploration of a hidden world. Over all, it’s best if there is a kind of moral point of view, though it doesn’t have to be overt. “Da Vinci’s Inquest” features Nicholas Campbell, who is not so big and overpowering as the Irish “Cracker” but not so tricky and seductive as English “Chancer,” who doesn’t deal with crime so much as business intrigue anyway. The secret world in Da Vinci is a morgue. Vancouver, B.C., a sister city to Edinburgh, is an excellent location: picturesque, not that well known, and Canadian. (I want to tip my hat to one of my all-time favorite serieses, “Mount Royal,” which was a Quebec version of “Dallas” jointly produced by Canada and France -- shot in Montreal -- but it ran into serious plot problems over the difference in sexual mores. The French were perfectly happy with the patriarch having a mistress, but the Canucks were not. I hope it shows up on DVD some day.)
So this Da Vinci sounds like he’s from Brooklyn, but he has gray hair and reading classes, a rapidly maturing daughter (few to none of these guys have sons, except Foyle) and an ex-wife he must work with, notwithstanding that she’s having an affair with his boss. He only gets upset if things get seriously bent. Otherwise he has a key to the ex-wife’s house, his daughter has a key to his apartment, and everyone is very Swedish. I don’t know how typical this is of Vancouver. I do know that the art in the backgrounds of the sets is seriously better than in most cop shows.
Da Vinci’s Inquest is often compared to NYPD Blue because the plots are managed as long strands that wind in and out for the whole season, but the characters are not as wacky as Bochco’s. There are many Asians and what we’d call Indians in the US -- when not carefully saying “Native American” -- but what up there are called “aboriginals.” Not that stereotypes don’t apply, but the women are both officers and prostitutes. When one killer of street walkers is probably going to escape, the huge big brother of one of the victims is tipped off, knowing that he will snuff the killer efficiently and then disappear.
This bit of curb-side justice is managed by the tough old cop, who’s often a hindrance as much as a help. Finding a pretty blonde woman dead in a parking lot, he gives a lot of racist pontificating about how some like ‘em blonde and some prefer dark... (The script writer doesn’t quite let him say “meat.”) The younger cop dislikes this talk. Then the old cop is totally befuddled and scandalized when the girl turns out to be transsexual with a surgically created vagina, a word he can’t bear to use.
These plots get into social issues, so the surgically improved girl (identified by the serial number on her breast implants) turns out to earn “her” living at an S/M club and the inquiry is hampered by several big shot clients who pay to come beat her with a riding crop, among other things. One bad set of bruises threw a clot that lodged in her lung, killing her. Misadventure, not murder.
Another plot line concerns irresponsible nursing homes where an accidental fire (old frayed wiring to a heater) kills nearly all the patients because the doors were locked and some were tied to their beds. The Canadians are as good as the English at making facsimilie “crispy critters.” One wonders what the prop room looks like. One thinks this sort of thought to protect oneself a little from the horror of a reality. The home lives of the characters wind in and out of the crimes, so that Da Vinci’s father’s confinement to a nursing home because of a stroke becomes sharply relevant. The opportunists wringing profit out of warehousing people and the lone caregiver who only did what he was told are given some stinging lines from their point of view. Society is always the ultimate destroyer of the weak, vulnerable, addicted, “other.”
Da Vinci is loosely based on a real guy. In the series of serieses he goes from being a narc, to a coroner, to a mayor and I’m sure he handles these developments smoothly. Sometimes his lines are a little crammed and unreal, but once in a while someone on this show manages a real zinger. Often it’s one of the female pathologists. Nicholas in real life writes and produces films. This year he’s in “The Englishman’s Boy,” which is a book many of my readers will recognize. Born in Montreal, he’s had training in both Canada and England and has worked in LA, so he’s an international figure but hasn’t hit a movie that most US folks would recognize.
Some of us would instantly recognize the name of the director of the first season: Anne Wheeler. She directed “Loyalties,” one of my all-time favorite “aboriginal movies” -- not least because it’s a big role for Tantoo Cardinal -- but she’s best known for “Cowboys Don’t Cry.”
So each of these mystery series has a kind of formula which it varies to suit the place and the times, as well as practical considerations like how much money there is, what the public wants to see, what actors are available. Fooling around with the casting helps sometimes (like “Rebus”) and fails sometimes. “Cracker” was translated to American by replacing Robbie Coltrane with Robert Pastorelli -- it failed. Pastorelli, who was evidently into drugs but possibly suicidal, died shortly after the series ended. He never quite achieved the Irish bitterness (also the clinging to guns and to God) but only a sort of Italian extravagance and outrageousness.
When I was a kid in the Fifties, I had a magazine that was a directory to actors, grouped like the Academy Award categories. Each entry was a photo, a name, and some basic facts. It functioned very much like imdb.com so you could find out the name of some obscure supporting actor and to some degree you could follow their career. The Internet sort of works the same way -- like a murder mystery, it lets the ordinary viewer into the “secret” world where they cook this stuff up. Some hate losing the illusion of reality, but I think it creates a richer, deeper enjoyment. CSI for movies.