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November 30, 2003

  • Stepping Back from the Abyss
  • imageDaVinci’s Inquest is back.

    It’s not just back in the sense that a new season began a couple of weeks ago, but in a more spiritual way as well. The last season of DaVinci’s Inquest—already probing the edges of the dark side of life in Vancouver’s downtown east side—got considerably darker, perhaps uncomfortably so. Corruption came to the Vancouver Police Force in the form of Brian Curtis, the closest thing DaVinci’s Inquest has had to an actual villain; Ian Tracey’s Detective Mick Leary continued to bottom out after a shooting the previous year. Overall, the stories—never exactly the cheeriest on television—got even more depressing with storylines about commingled remains at a mental hospital graveyard and a truly pathetic stalker for Sgt. Kurtz (Sarah Jane Redmond).

    It wasn’t as good. It used to be better than anything on Canadian or American television, but now the show was looking tired and self-indulgent. The series had always made little concessions toward casual viewers—there isn’t even a “previously, on DaVinci’s Inquest…”—and last season Executive Producer and writer Chris Haddock made the ongoing storylines even intricate, even explicitly stating in interviews the show wasn’t for new viewers. The cast—already bigger than most ensemble series—got even bigger. Perhaps most damnably, most of the storylines during the season were left unresolved. On paper that sounds sort of cutting edge—for viewers it gave us little return for their emotional investment.

    But this season it’s back.

    Having gazed into the abyss a little too closely, it’s stepped back a little. Mick Leary’s downward spiral has leveled out—if you call getting rid of all your possessions and living out of your truck leveling out. Already we’re starting to see some resolution happening to things from last season. They re-partnered all the detectives and a lot of the staleness has vanished (Donnelly Rhodes is certainly back on form). The show is still making little concessions to the new or casual viewer, but it’s certainly easier going.

    Don’t get me wrong—it’s still dark. Sunday night’s episode found the detectives coming upon a crime scene where a man killed his wife and children and botched his suicide attempt such that he took bloodied clothes to a Laundromat to watch them spin dry as he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. And yet, as with the best DaVinci’s Inquest storylines, the story is as much about the investigators quietly and subtly coping with their personal demons in these situations. On Sunday night’s episode, Mick threw up at the crime scene—something I’m sure has happened to most real-life detectives, but something you’d never see Briscoe do on Law and Order—and then later reflected in a plain but moving way on his own experiences with the fine line between sanity and madness.

    The series still dwells on the gray areas of compromise in the fringes of society, with Coroner Dominic DaVinci continuing to advocate needle exchanges, safe injection sites and instituting a red light district (all questions which seem more timely given real-life events in Vancouver). And when Nicholas Campbell, playing DaVinci with motor-mouth aplomb, gets into a full froth about all these things, it’s great fun. This season nails the political colours to the wall even further by beginning a story arc where Dominic is invited to submit his name to become Chief of Police. It’s a storyline that seems doomed to tragedy —as DaVinci’s assistant Helen points out to him, he gave her his long list of enemies her first day on the job—but perhaps that’s the point. And hey, we can see Nicholas Campbell get into a froth around cops. That’s good value.

    What’s really amazing to me is that this season of DaVinci’s Inquest was being written, produced and even shot while executive producer Chris Haddock and his crew were also preparing the CBS series The Handler with Joe Pantoliano. Normally, stretching a creative team across two series sounds the death knell (look at The X-Files), but the writing on DaVinci’s Inquest seems tighter than it has been in a while.

    Watching The Handler has helped me to see the enormous creative freedom Chris Haddock has on this side of the 49th Parallel. The first few episodes seemed straight out of DaVinci’s Inquest—lots of ongoing (and dangling) storylines, the bordering-on-unwieldy-sized-cast, tons of backstory and hints of ongoing storylines to come, even the lack of a title sequence.  After about the fourth episode, you can start seeing the network notes coming into play: subsequent episodes have been ‘simplified’ a bit, the cast has been hemmed in to a distinctive core. They even have a title sequence now.

    At its best, DaVinci’s Inquest is a distillation of some of the best traditions of Canadian TV drama (and we Canadians do have a few)—social commentary, social realism and some kick-ass character actors. The characters in DaVinci’s Inquest act and talk like ordinary people. Part of that is the actors— Nicholas Campbell talks in the most Canadian idiom I’ve ever witnessed — but a lot of it is some of the sharpest scripting and most naturalistic dialogue ever written for TV.

    I was becoming a bit worried that this was going to become lost as the show ossified more and more. But it seems my fears were unfounded. DaVinci’s Inquest is back. Go and watch it now.

     

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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