Premiering May 26th on Global is a new light-hearted Canadian detective series starring Jason Priestley and Cindy Sampson and called, bluntly enough, Private Eyes. It's a fairly generic light-hearted PI series.
And I actually mean that as a compliment!
There is a tendency among Canadian film and TV reviewers to lament the lack of "great" Canadian TV series, bemoaning the fact that we supposedly aren't participating in this so-called "Golden Age" of TV that apparently is occurring around us. And that's all well and good. But the more pressing matter is just to get bums on seats. For good or ill, most of the popular English-Canadian TV shows of the last few years -- the ones actually boasting solid ratings -- are not the cutting edge, challenging series. They are the competently made, middle brow series that people can kick back to after a hard day at work, often appealing to a broad spectrum demographic (ie: families can watch 'em together).
Murdoch Mysteries, Republic of Doyle, Motive, Saving Hope, Schitt's Creek to name a few. Nor is this exclusive to Canada. In the U.K. Midsomer Murders has been running for years while in the States Bones has a decade behind it. Yet I don't suppose too many critics would put such series on their "best" lists.
Admittedly, I tend to come at the issue from the point of view of someone who feels that if a series I love makes it to two or three seasons it warrants the Snoopy Dance! My point being that as much as I, personally, would love a TV schedule that catered to me exclusively -- at the end of the day, winning viewers is more important than winning accolades from people like me.
Which brings us back to Private Eyes. Whether it has a shot at being the next Murdoch Mysteries or Republic of Doyle it's certainly game to try.
If you've read any of my previous posts, you know a recurring them with me is Canadian identity in Canadian pop culture.
It revolves around a roguish man-child and amateur sleuth, Matt Shade (Priestley playing a retired hockey pro) teamed with a more straight-forward professional woman, Angie Everett (Sampson as a career private eye) -- think anything from Castle to, say, the recent Lucifer. And Shade has a precocious teenage daughter on one-hand and an avuncular parent on the other (again -- the provenance is too vast to bother cataloguing). A nice paying-attention-to-recent-narrative-trends is that the duo seems a genuine partnership (ala Castle) as opposed to the traditional brilliant-sleuth-solves-crime-while-sidekick-looks-on-amazed which actually starts to seem a bit creaky when recycled in modern series. (Interestingly, in the novel that inspired the series -- The Code by G.B. Joyce -- I don't think there was a female partner).
D for originality -- but maybe a B+ for execution. The first episode was breezily enjoyable as a warm up stretch and with the fourth episode (the second episode offered for advanced review) it was working even better, offering a consistent level of chuckles, a plot that clipped along with requisite twists and red herrings, and personable leads. Nothing taxing or surprising -- but with the potential to serve as a bit of comfort food of the tube.
But what makes the series fascinating is that it's willing to admit -- even embrace -- its Canadianness! If you've read any of my previous posts, you know a recurring them with me is Canadian identity in Canadian pop culture. And how so many Canadian movies and TV shows either pretend they aren't Canadian...or present a generic, anonymous Canada (with dialogue written to sound American, using American references and terms).
But Private Eyes is gambling that acknowledging and embracing its sense of place might actually enhance the scripts (you know -- just like American and U.K. series do). Remember how I said that the series is inherently generic in concepts? So the way to distinguish itself is in the details, the passing references, the jokes (a funny quip about the optimism of Maple Leaf fans in the first episode comes to mind). This, of course, starts with the very concept of the ex-hockey pro turned private eye. Now hockey dramas have been notoriously problematic in English-Canada, but here they're smart enough not to rely on it too heavily. At most it's used humorously as the hero can exploit his fame to help in an investigation (like Castle-the-novelist -- or Trish-the-celebrity in Jessica Jones).
The series' sense of Canadiana isn't restricted to sports. In the fourth episode they investigate the attempted murder of a novelist (played by guest star Nicholas Campbell) and with real life author Thomas King making a cameo and a couple of suspects (loosely) evocative of TV lifestyle hosts Steven & Chris.
And here's the point: the series isn't shoe-horning in extraneous or self-conscious Canadian references (the charge made by those who hysterically insist that Canadian movies and TV shows should always pretend to be American). It's just acknowledging that setting is part of storytelling. Heck, the very milieu of the fourth episode -- a rustic island community just a ferry ride from a big city -- seems more appropriate to Toronto than, say, New York or Los Angeles. (In an American series the setting would probably've been a high end condo).
Global has been this unapologetic Canadian route before -- with Bomb Girls, King and Remedy -- and equally spiked them within a couple of seasons.
One problem Private Eyes may face is that it often seems like Canadian series that score the big domestic ratings are the ones that boast some sort of American window. Even if they lose the American window after a season or two, or it's just on some obscure American cable channel. At this point I'm not sure if Private Eyes has such a platform (the end credits list a "U.S. casting" person).
I'm not trying to sell anyone on the series. Sometimes critics (if they like a show) take on the role of advocate (a critic might, for instance, throw in a plug for the sci-fi series Killjoys in some distractingly gratuitous way). What I am saying is: if you like Republic of Doyle or Bones or Death in Paradise then it's worth sampling a couple of episodes of Private Eyes and see what ya think.
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