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<em>Still Life</em>: Must TV Pilots be More Than TV Pilots?

09/21/2013 11:28 EDT | Updated 11/21/2013 05:12 EST

Last Sunday, the CBC aired a TV mystery-movie, Still Life: A Three Pines Mystery.

I'm guessing either the CBC didn't send out copies to reviewers, or the press just wasn't that interested, because doing a quick google search for reviews doesn't bring up a whole lot.

Still, it raises some interesting topics for a pop cultural observer.

Based on Louise Penny's novels about Quebec police Inspector Gamache, it follows the British format of recent years of doing TV movies, rather than an hour long series (perhaps explaining why they cast British actor Nathaniel Parker as the lead).

Not that the format is unheard of in North America. In the U.S. Tom Selleck starred in the Jesse Stone TV movies, and in the 1970s CBS enjoyed great success with its "mystery wheel" movies. While in Canada, the mystery movie series was an experiment a few years back ranging from the Joanne Kilbourn movies (with Wendy Crewson) to a quartet of Sherlock Holmes films (starring a decidedly eccentric Matt Frewer opposite a sturdily heroic Kenneth Welsh as Watson).

As well as promising orphan movies meant to spawn sequels, but didn't. Such as the enjoyable Harry's Case, starring Brian Markinson and Adam Beach, or Tripping the Wire, starring the charismatic but too often underutilized Clark Johnson. The latter was presumptuously sub-titled "A Stephen Tree Mystery" even though no further adventures followed.

The Gamache novels number many, but they've only made the one movie. And Still Life doesn't really feel like a movie. You know, with some sort of emotional gravitas, and maybe a character arc. It feels like, well, like an episode of a TV series.

Had the CBC sprung for a batch of, say, three movies (like the British "seasons") the audience could regard Still Life as just an opening episode, and could have time to grow to like and be interested in the characters.

But left to stand on its own, where the programmers are awaiting public response and word of mouth to decide if they even should green light the next one -- I'm not sure it's got the stuff.

And this got me thinking about the long history of orphan pilots in Canadian TV. Whether a TV movie, or a regular-length episode, producers need to recognize that this might, in fact, be all you get. So it's got to be your best work -- not just because how good it is will decide whether you get the greenlight but so you've got something for a second life on the DVD shelf.

In Hollywood, there's so much lucre they can throw it at pilots that never see the light of day. But I'm not sure the more parsimonious Canadian industry can -- or should -- be so self-indulgent. It's that "waste not, want not" philosophy that has led Canadian TV networks to air pilots for series they've already decided not to make.

Sabbatical (with a young Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany) and The Cult (with Henry Czerny) were simply opening chapters in serialized thrillers -- completely pointless as one-off episodes. At least Tangled, an espionage pilot starring Sarah Wayne Callies (just prior to The Walking Dead), featured a main plot that resolved within the hour (though sub-plots were left dangling).

The science fiction TV movie Borealis was astonishingly good. Most people who saw it seemed genuinely stunned it didn't get turned into a series. One theory is that Borealis was moseying toward the same saloon as the then soon-to-air U.S. series, Defiance -- both set in frontier towns in an environmentally altered earth. And faced with a possible ratings showdown, instead of slapping leather the Space programmers threw their guns to the dirt, dropped to their knees, and sobbed: "Don't shoot! We'll get out of town!"

Yet even Borealis suffered from the vague sense of being a "pilot". It doesn't end on a cliff hanger, yet neither does it entirely feel like a movie that exists for itself alone.

Still Life's decision to approach the material as the first of a possible series of movies explains certain narrative oddities. Like a huge cast of characters who you keep waiting to be interrogated, or to learn what clues they possess -- but nothing comes of most of them. And that's because many are simply recurring town's folk from the novels.

To be honest, the mystery itself wasn't very compelling. How much that lies with the source material, and how much with how they adapted it I don't know. Sometimes being too faithful is the problem, other times, messing with the source novels loses the point. In the Joanne Kilbourn movies the TV makers bizarrely re-imagined the academia heroine as an ex-cop! And then rewrote some of the plots!

Fans of the Insp. Gamache novels were grumbling many of the actors seemed too young and pretty for the characters.

A lot of modern detective series (in books and TV) can suffer from a certain blandness -- the days of the colourful detective investigating the baffling crime apparently seen as too crude for the palates of modern crime aficionados. As Still Life progresses there's a noticeable lack of surprise twists, or hidden motives, or even suspects. The few cryptic clues turn out mainly to be dead ends, almost as if the filmmakers had their beginning, their ending -- and everything else was just padding. And I seem to recall finding myself more emotionally caught up in old Murder, She Wrote episodes than I did Still Life.

Admittedly, I can be a nitpicker. The recent British series, Broadchurch, deserves all its accolades when it comes to being a compelling character drama -- but I was a little irked when it turned out you could watch the first episode, skip to the last, and not miss much relevant to the solution!

Over the last couple of years I've found myself gravitating to the occasional mystery movie series on a quiet night. Inspector Lewis, Wallander (both the British and Swedish series), Jericho of Scotland Yard, Zen, Foyle's War. Some work best viewed as just an "episode" in a series, others have movie-like aspirations, some are quirky, some brooding, some rich in place and period. But all were compelling.

Still Life isn't by any stretch awful. The actors were fine, the characters pleasant. But as a mystery, or as a human drama, it was a minor instalment in a series-that-hasn't-been-made-yet.

And in the Sisyphean world of Canadian film & TV, that's a hubris I'm not sure a pilot can afford.