Monday, May 30, 2011

Recommended: Netflix gets Canada's Intelligence

Someone made a show with a black female lead in a rather deep role. Honestly, I think I should've noticed, because network shows that don't expressly cater to minorities usually put them firmly on the sidelines. Oh, "Intelligence" is Canadian, so I guess that makes sense...

Of course, many who watch this show will be forced to compare it to "The Wire," which I'm purposely saving for some undefined future date. And "Wire" fans may say, "some Canadian wanted to re-do 'The Wire,' but thought it had too many minorities, then dodged criticism by giving one the lead." This is also a valid interpretation, I guess, but "Intelligence" ran for 26 eps in 2 seasons, & was canceled in '07. Maybe it wasn't meant to be.

The basic story is this: the leads are Jimmy Reardon (Ian Tracey) and Mary Spalding (Klea Scott). Jimmy is a big-time crime lord in Vancouver, and Mary is a high-ranking member of the Organized Crime Unit (OCU), who interacts a lot with CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

She's looking to advance her career and compete with the US spy system, but faces bureaucracy and incompetence. He's a semi-legit business owner, and the biggest pot-distributor in town. Even without an out-of-control brother and aggressive competitors, Jimmy has a lot of personal and professional problems to handle.

The real starting point is established in the 2-hour TV movie that aired 1 year before this went to series. There, Mary and Jimmy form a tenuous alliance. After all, it's not like he's running coke or arranging assassinations, and she's not the kind of cop who'll make him wear a wire or threaten to arrest his family. Light and dark don't necessarily make enemies, at least in Canada.

This will draw comparisons to "The Sopranos," as Jimmy turns to Spalding and offers her information. Two worlds collide! Reardon is such a smart criminal that he sees the value in exchanging street info for actual government intel. She needs the explanations that he can provide for un-witnessed crimes, while he gets to find out if the DEA is trying to extradite him.

I suppose for a true alpha-male criminal-type, it's impressive that he's willing to make a "people need people" choice. He manages to become a secret informant so it doesn't make him a real snitch - he won't sell out his underlings or rat out competitors. Also, Mary is quite clever, and won't clear the streets so he can rule alone.

Luckily, the show does a lot with every 44 minutes, and the characters are thoroughly rounded-out - the constant action in the strip club with a close-knit circle of dudes makes it get very close to feeling like "Sopranos" or "Entourage," especially in S2. Thank god it's not as repetitive, indulgent, or mindless as the HBO shows.

But the problems I loosely out-lined are only the beginning. Jimmy's ex-wife, Francine, knows all about his illicit deals. She's at least kind of psychotic, wants back in his life, and is willing to use their daughter as leverage. Every time you see their child look at "momma," it's clear that she'd rather stay with her dad.

Mary, of course, has to set up an intel network from scratch, then keep it from being compromised. She's landed a huge fish, in Reardon, but this means that other people are ready to take him away from her (to make their own name) or use him to get her replaced. This show could just as easily have been called "Thin Ice."

One rewarding aspect is that the show is so episodic that not every installment resolves the b- and c-plotlines. This way of dealing with characters is nice, especially for anyone who has liked a show that later gets bogged down by having a big, capable cast. New characters move in and out, and if there's a serial killer out there, it's not necessarily one of the regular actors.

It's also very relieving that, as "Intelligence" progresses, the interactions become a more far-ranging, larger part of the series. Budding relationships serve to bolster the main Jimmy-Frankie drama (she's the ex-wife from Hell), which has many interesting twists and turns. Still, since Mary has her own troubles at home, it's a relief that the show soon grows more broad. Domestic disputes are the sort of thing an audience can (and should) tire of quickly.

There's a fantastic tune (Indian/Middle-Eastern) that plays at the end of most eps - you may want to look it up; I know I will. It's a memorably sweet queue that pops up a lot. And in the second season, this great theme starts to get used in the middle or beginning of episodes. When we hear the "club remix" it's clearly getting a bit OTT, but I love it. If anyone knows it, tell me...

I also get a kick out of another regular music cue used on the show. It's a guitar/bass/drum combo, and every time, it sounds as if you're going to hear Morcheeba's excellent song, "Angel." If you like "Angel" as much as I do, I swear you'll hear the similarity, too.

Matt Frewer, better known as "Max Headroom," has a lot to do, and it's nice to see an 80's staple get some real work. While Mary is mostly concerned with bolstering Canada's spy system, her immediate underling is always trying to undermine and replace her. This makes for great tension.

I think you'll find a lot to like here, and I hope that fans of "The Wire" give me feedback (please no spoilers). As I said, there's a real "dudes, bros, & more dudes," element at play, but that's natural in the crime genre. The women, thank heaven, are given a lot to do in the series.

I also think that many people will really warm up to our criminal lead, Jimmy... The actor is good and the character is both clever and complex, which is always an easy sell. If anything, the most unbelievable moments come from a 2nd-season romance that makes no sense. How do you fall for a guy that just stares at you with cold eyes, says little/nothing, and creases his forehead a lot?

I understand the "bad boy" thing, of course, but attraction requires more than being... completely non-responsive, like a frown-y robot; even coming off disinterested is better. Then again, Tony Soprano eclipses my romantic success, and I can only imagine how hard his breathing gets during sex. Or how he doesn't have a heart attack after...

"Intelligence" requires you to listen to and think about the dialogue. There are tons of loose threads and red herrings laying about. The humor and interactions tend to work, and the show neatly pulls off most (all?) of its moments, especially the big ones.

I also get a big kick out of watching a non-US genre show. Someone starts talking about how his father emigrated to find his fortune in the city they're in; he starts to say that this "is a land..." And then I realize that they're not in the States, and it's fun to hear someone talk about another country that way.

I suppose people could say that the characters are a little too likable, that they don't engage in enough "awful crime" that would befit successful criminals. I already saw where that went after 2 seasons of "The Sopranos." For my part, I thought the show neatly explains why our leads aren't selling kids,  dealing heroin, or forcing women into prostitution. I also felt that their range of problems was interesting enough to require such "dark" and "gritty" material.

"Intelligence" is currently available on Netflix Streaming and Amazon Instant. I suggest you give it a spin. Like most of my Netflix recommendations, this is a foreign series, and I like highlighting material from abroad. Draw it out as long as you like, since you'll get no more eps in the future. The 2nd season finale is very interesting and enjoyable; it leaves off at a point that will make you consider what might've been without frustrating you too badly.

This is my last post for May. I hope you've enjoyed this month's entries!


  1. Here's some inside scoop; the creator of the show definitely did NOT intend to re-create The Wire with fewer minorities. If you view his other series - DaVinci's Inquest - (which ran for 7 seasons and was followed by a one season epilogue titled "DaVinci City Hall"), you'll note that he was adamant in making sure the expression of Vancouver's ethnic and cultural diversity was expressed. If anything, repression of ethnic representation is often the action of the network...

  2. I hope my first reply by text works: thanks! In Canadian tv and film, i only know Atom Egoyan and Cronenberg, & have never gone up North, so I have no context to judge those shows by.

    I've heard of DaVinci's, but never saw it. Even as a NYC native, tho, I'm surprised to see a show with decent (or better) diversity. Rock on, Vancouver! I'm open to more suggestions.


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