Saturday, September 06, 2008


I’ve already written a post about the “DaVinci Inquest” long-running Canadian series but maybe there’s a little more to say. I’ve probably watched more episodes of this than any other cop series, (through the magic of DVD which is different from watching weekly on television), mostly because there are more episodes available. This is a very popular show and stayed alive for a long time by transforming itself (first Da Vinci is a cop, then a coroner, then the mayor) while remaining rooted in a real life person. So far I don’t have access to the mayor version on DVD, at least through Netflix.

Many a cop show has played out before my eyes -- I can even remember back to Dragnet, though I wasn’t a big fan until Hill Street Blues came along. That really grabbed me because by then I’d been an animal control officer knocking on doors and responding to emergencies. It was the Seventies, the Patty Hearst years, and we were all a little crazy. After that I followed Bochco along through all his permutations, even the ill-advised one that was a musical -- whatever the heck it was called. But Bochco was tame compared to something like the English “Wire in the Blood,” based on the truly vicious novels of a lesbian interested in torture. Without Robson Green, those shows wouldn’t even be tolerable.

Incidentally, both Bochco and Jack Webb thought about creating a show about animal control officers, but there were two problems. One was that animal actors are difficult and the other was that the American public (and probably all the English-speaking countries) simply will not tolerate any understanding of pets except the most Valentine card portrayals. I haven’t seen the Animal Planet shows -- which from descriptions seem to be only about cruelty and emergency calls -- but they appear to be the only way the public will tolerate law enforcement shows about pets.

Getting back to da Vinci, one of the most obvious qualities of this show is its “Canadian-ness.” And B.C. Canada at that. Among these the most salient is the character of the center-pole leading man, Nicholas Campbell, who is not exactly Shakespearean but not a loose cannon in quite the way Cracker is. (Cracker is a prototype of the genius wildman.) He drinks too much, but who can blame him? He likes women but is too obsessed with his job to sustain a relationship. Occasionally he loses his temper, but it is always justified. He doesn’t think in terms of solving the crime, but solving the problem: what are the solutions for murdered prostitutes, street kids, drug trade, abusive nursing homes? He’s almost like a public health official. In short, he lives at the intersection of Idealism and Romanticism.

The acting is universally excellent from Donnelly Rhodes, who represents the old Dragnet model, to Ian Tracy, more along the lines of Brad Pitt. That their partnership really works means that the writers understand both types. Old cops either get fried and hardened into ineffective cynics or they develop a sense of humanity based on “seeing everything.” The Ian Tracy character is both smart and compassionate. In fact, it is the compassion straight through that tips this towards NW Canada -- a place where the rain falls gently on us all.

Tracy gets a bit of the “sex” stuff since he’s romancing Suleka Ramen, the dishy pathologist who works alongside the coroner’s ex-wife, but it is the most tender and quiet sort of intimacy. When he is working to understand a Guatemalan torturer who has just been lethally poisoned by either his victims, his bosses, or his cohort, he’s on the bed with Suleka who is reading a book about a victimized Guatemalan woman. She moves down close to him, leaning over him, and he merely strokes her face gently with the backs of two fingers. It is intense. Likewise, when the coroner’s daughter misses her piano teacher, a lovely woman who insists on giving him the lesson since it was paid for, she takes his hand to teach him to play scales. Innocent but... In an American show, he would be bending her over backwards and trying to undo her clothes.

I’m impressed by how many of the actors, like Suleka and the female detective Venus Terzo, are “people of color.” There are Asians, Aboriginals, Blacks, various blends and versions, everywhere. And they are accurately portrayed. Evan Adams, who plays “Thomas Builds the Fire” in Sherman Alexie movies, has appeared both as a street scruff and again as an Alderman. I could swear that one character, a defense attorney, was played by Sherman himself in his early years, but I couldn’t find any record. This inclusiveness is partly because Canada, as a part of the British Commonwealth, is open to former colonies of England and is seen as a desirable place to start over or take refuge. (There are few-to-no Aussies, who prefer Hollywood.)

But I think even more than being a realistic version of Vancouver, which is a port city after all, this originated with Chris Haddock, who invented the show in the first place. His signature screen shows a jazz bass player from overhead, twirling his instrument. I suspect it’s someone famous (I’m too out-of-it to know) and I’m often aware of both the jazz understanding of race (“It don’t matter if you can play!”) and the jazz sense of structure (themes, riffs, solos, inventions). Once in a while the romantic "soul" understanding of the underworld takes over, for instance in the story about the addicts taking refuge in a “shooting gallery” after one strung-out doctor’s son literally shoots a shopkeeper. Old-cop-think is to call the Swat Team and blast ‘em outta there. But the hero talks his way in by using a hit of drugs as bait, finds only two unarmed kids, and gets them safely out. It’s clear that the reason they have no drug money is that they’ve spent a small fortune on candles, which makes the dank interior of an abandoned warehouse look like a Jean Cocteau fairytale.

One of the other characteristic elements is that of the normal and level-headed onlooker, in this case usually played by Sarah Strange who is sometimes described as the coroner’s secretary or -- by him -- as his “associate.” She does the legwork, the phone calls, the little trivia that would clog up the plot, but also she simply looks, widens her eyes, tilts her head, or otherwise comments. She’s no Greek chorus, but she does put that outside comment on what could otherwise be pretty extravagant.

There are few special effects except for the quite wonderful local scenery. One doesn’t see people screwing or beating each other up or burning up, but one does see the bodies afterwards. VERY realistic bodies. That’s the dark note that balances the romance.

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