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CTV's Crime-Drama <em>Played</em> is Worth Betting On

10/02/2013 05:34 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

There was a time when you could declare a Canadian TV season successful if two series were airing around the same time. And a "hit" season if people had actually heard of one of them.

But in recent years, we've seen Canadian series enjoy modest popular success and critical acclaim -- occasionally at the same time. And though the number of series in production is still pretty miserly (for a G7 Nation) there are actually enough that there's a fall season of new shows (comedies like Package Deal and Spun Out), returning shows (The Murdoch Mysteries, Republic of Doyle) and even "re-vamped" returning shows (Cracked).

And along comes Played -- CTV's crime-drama about undercover cops that premieres Thursday, Oct. 3rd.

You can't fairly judge a TV series unless you've seen a few episodes, to get a feel for the show, to let the production work out its kinks. But with only so many hours in a day, most people can only reasonably give a series one shot to win them over.

All this is to say that having watched a preview of the first episode of Played, I wouldn't want to declare any opinion about it overall -- except to say that one episode is pretty good.

I'm assuming each episode will be pretty much a story onto itself -- a little bit the U.S. series Mission: Impossible (albeit with fewer gadgets), a little bit the British series Hustle (only more law-abiding).

The cast was pleasant enough -- a kind of necessary first ingredient in any dramatic concoction (albeit one of the most subjective of flavourings). Headed by Vincent Walsh (Shattered City, Hemingway vs. Callaghan) and with familiar faces like Chandra West, Lisa Marcos (the first season of The Listener), Agam Darshi (Sanctuary, Dan for Mayor), Dwain Murphy (Combat Hospital) and Adam Butcher (Saint Ralph). Indeed, you can actually be a bit disappointed realizing some of the actors are just guest stars -- like Elias Toufexis, who generally makes a good impression in his roles, including here as a small fish caught in a big net.

The plot was slick and well structured. The pilot for Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was enjoyable, but did feel a bit too obviously a pilot. I'd just recently wrote about the importance of pilots and I'd argue Played pulled it off reasonably well -- seeming as much like a movie as a series pilot. It kept a brisk tempo, one scene driving us into the next, and with some zigs and zags to keep us on our toes. Yet the scenes themselves are allowed to breathe, allowing the actors to play the nuances as opposed to rushing through them. In this series a lot of the tension will be in how the characters react to scenes, as the audience wonders if their cover is blown. Serge Houde plays the episode's villain, and half his performance isn't in the dialogue he says, but in how he reacts to what others say. It's nice to see a series where the filmmakers trust their actors enough to linger on a close up or reaction shot.

The episode even has the chutzpah to treat a character scene as the "climax" rather than an action scene, as Walsh's character -- after earlier saying the best lie draws upon truth -- ends up blurting out his own insecurities as part of his cover. When we cut to cop cars swarming around the bad guys, you can almost feel like you missed something -- where's the shoot-out? the chase down dirty alleys? Then you realize since Played is about working the con -- the climax is when they successfully worm their way into the criminal's confidences. The rest is just epilogue.

Ever since the movie The Sting (and perhaps earlier) the cliche of con and undercover stories is the climax where the audiece thinks it's falling apart -- then it turns out it hasn't. It can be clever -- but it also excludes the audience emotionally. So it's maybe a mark in Played's favour that it didn't go that route. When things start to go off the rails, they really are going off the rails, and the drama and tension is watching to see how (or if) the characters can get it back on track.

Played is Hawaii 5-0 rather than, say, Breaking Bad. (Though there are "artistic" touches, like scenes at a theatre -- a subtextual nod to the theme of undercover cops playing roles). But there's nothing wrong with going for the mainstream, particularly in Canada when too much focus can be given to productions that win awards, but no one actually watches. Indeed, detractors have been quick to dismiss the Old School lack of ambition driving series like Rookie Blue, The Listener, and Saving Hope. But viewers are tuning in.

A lot of these recent series have enjoyed the publicity associated with securing slots on American networks -- which may account for their ratings. Not so much because Canadians are watching, kneejerk, because Americans are (The Listener and Saving Hope continue to enjoy good numbers in Canada even though they were dropped by the American broadcasters) but it maybe gives them an initial "stamp of approval" or, more likely, the Canadian press gives them more publicity than they do Canadian series without American windows. Played has very much the feel of those series, but it hasn't secured an American deal (that I'm aware of) and, as such, I'm not sure has received comparable promotion. Which is too bad. Because though the pilot might rate slightly below, say, Flashpoint or Rookie Blue, I'd argue it's more entertaining and sure footed than the early episodes of The Listener, Saving Hope, or Motive.

Played is clearly set in Canada as Canada Post vans trundle by in the background. Yet one wonders if as originally conceived it was hoping for an American partner, because remove the visuals and the dialogue itself is more ambiguous. They refer to "the border" but not whose border. They refer to "feds" when they presumably mean "Mounties."

The pilot episode of Played is worth sampling. As someone who writes and ruminates a lot about movies and TV, in a way, the best compliment I can give is I wasn't really analyzing it while I was watching -- I was just letting it carry me along.

Now whether it's got the goods for the long con, only later episodes will tell.