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On TV: Killer Doctors And Murderous Mennoites

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Two Canadian dramas are aiming to bring a bit of cable edge to mainstream networks.

Pure (Mondays, CBC; back episodes available for streaming from the CBC website) is a crime-drama whose premise might sound like a joke: The Mennonite Mob! Apparently Mennonite crime is not entirely a filmmaker's fancy, the close nature of the communities, and literally the last people you'd suspect of criminality, making an ideal cover.

In this Ontario Mennonite community, the mostly good citizens turn a blind eye to what is going on. But when an honest family man (Ryan Robbins) is appointed the new pastor he finds that willful ignorance is no longer an option -- especially when he is coerced into aiding the criminals.

The opening episode works well, setting up an array of characters (including the hedonistic cop who is only just discovering this criminal element right under his nose) and mostly blows past any initial snickering the premise might engender (though a scene where menacing Mennonites pull up in a black car teeters on the edge of parody).

The series gets marks for trying something different within the exhausted mob/crime genre. Though there are ways it evokes some recent series, such as the critically acclaimed American series Breaking Bad (with its innocent-turned-gangster -- Robbins' even looks a bit like Bryan Cranston) or even Banshee, a violent American drama set in a town bordering an Amish community.

It's atmospheric, delivering an unhurried pace without being turgid. The acting is solid throughout with Robbins, an engaging actors who's been skirting the edges of mainstream recognition for years, firmly in the centre seat. And the series wants us to respect the dignity of the characters. A scene of Robbins' character at a police station nicely conveys just how raucous the outside world would seem to him. Even though it's our world, we understand it from his perspective.

At the same time, TV is cluttered with gritty crime dramas. Swap out the farm houses for tenements and this could be akin to any mob infested neighbourhood. A scene in the second episode where the cop tortures information out of a suspect shows the filmmakers are unprepared to break from modern narrative clichés (namely: torture is neat and all the cool kids do it). Still, it has that atmosphere, and there are enough characters and threads to be developed (the junkie Mennonite, the cop's son who is sweet on the pastor's daughter) that it promises twists and turns to come.

Mary Kills People (premiering Jan. 25, Global) is about a doctor (Caroline Dhavernas) who has an illegal side-line helping people commit suicide. A little bit Six Feet Under meets Weeds -- but without cable TV explicitness. But for those complaining Canadian TV is "safe" (a charge that has never been accurate) MKP boasts topical subject matter and the pilot's opening scene establishes the disparate tones: beginning with pathos, segueing into comedy, morphing into suspense, and then going darker -- all within six minutes!

Yet it doesn't lose itself in hubris, remaining grounded as an accessible, mainstream TV drama.

Based on the two episodes offered for advance viewing, it clips along at a brisk pace -- almost too much so. Maybe it's a result of a short season (I believe six episodes) but barely are we introduced to Mary's world than the danger of it unravelling rears its head (with cops, mobsters, and even her daughter all sniffing about her secret). A sexual tryst in the pilot seemed more driven by the needs of the plot than the needs of the characters (pun intended).

A problem is that the "edgy" idea of the assisted suicide heroine is draped over familiar tropes. From the respectable suburbanite hiding a criminal life (drug dealer/spy/crooked cop) to the suspicious teenager (usually a daughter, usually eldest of two siblings) to even the erudite mobster (albeit mobsters come in a limited number of archetypes) -- all are staples of modern TV. Indeed, Pure riffs on some of them as well!

But clichés are clichés because they often work (a truism that is itself a cliché) and MKP is slick and certainly well acted by Dhavernas (a veteran of film and TV in both French and English) and with a cast including Jay Ryan, a New Zealand-born actor who's already spent four years in Canada shooting Beauty & The Beast. But it's never quite as fresh in execution as it is in conception.

It's an (admittedly) odd bit of nitpicking, but I was going to comment on a scene where characters are at a Drive-Thru -- and place their order at the same window where they receive their food. Isn't the set-up of Drive-Thrus that you place your order at one place and receive it at another? Hence drive thru. But the restaurant looks more like a food shack and maybe there are such "Drive-Thru" shacks...or maybe the script called for a drive thru but they couldn't afford to rent an appropriate locale. But odder was when the characters are handed their food before they pay for it. Um, pretty sure that's not the protocol.

So why-oh-why (I hear you ask) am I fixating on such an irrelevancy? Did it ruin the episode? Did it forever shatter my suspension of disbelief? Nyah. But it can feel a bit sloppy -- given the series is about technical issues involving medicine, law, and ethics.

Related to this is my usual beef: in the first two episodes nothing is said to indicate where the series is set, while references to Portland, New York, etc. are crowbarred into the dialogue to imply it's the U.S. It's "dog whistle" culturalism -- the filmmakers can deny that's what they're doing even as everyone knows it is.

Wrap your brain around that. They thought it'd be less controversial to make a series about a heroine who kills people than to set it in Canada. Kind of makes you think about what constitutes daring television doesn't it, eh? (And remember, kids: every time a Canadian program pretends it's American, Donald Trump grows another hair).

Pure is stronger out-of-the-gate than Mary Kills People, but both shows are slick and worth a look-in, just to see if they grab you.

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