Friday, June 27, 2008

Thank You Kindly

Before he was an Oscar-winning screenwriter of such movies as CRASH and MILLION DOLLAR BABY, Paul Haggis created and frequently wrote one of the best shows of the late 90s, DUE SOUTH. Created in Canada and broadcast on CBS in the States, DUE SOUTH was about Constable Benton Fraser, of the RCMP, who comes to Chicago on the trail of his father's killers. When one of the killers turns out to be a rogue Mountie, Fraser is basically banished to Chicago for turning on one of his own. So he works out of the Canadian consulate in downtown Chicago, where he solves crimes with his new best friend, a wisecracking Chicago detective. The show has all the hallmarks of a classic cop/buddy show, with lots of humor and action.

But DUE SOUTH was different.

For one thing, the humor oscillated between out-and-out farce and really subtle commentary on how Canadians see Americans, and vice versa. Paul Gross played Fraser as someone just this side of Dudley Doo Right. He was honest, forthright, determined, and incredibly (usually laughably) polite. He had a pet wolf named Diefenbaker, who was deaf. Fraser explains that his eardrums burst when he dove into freezing waters to pull Fraser out. To this, Fraser's pal, Det. Ray Vecchio (played by David Marciano) says, "I didn't know wolves saved people." Fraser earnestly replies, "He will ... if he sees you."

Anyway, for as much humor as there was in the show, there was also a surprising about of gravitas and pathos. Nowhere is there more evident than in the 2-hour episode "Victoria's Secret," which I just watched last night. I've seen the episode at least a dozen times, but last night marked the first time I'd watched it in about a year, and I'd forgotten just how powerful it is.

The story involves Fraser's reunion with "the one person [he] can't face" -- a woman named Victoria (played by Melina Kanakaredes, just before she hit it big with the series PROVIDENCE), who, Fraser explains in a long, single-take monologue, drove the getaway car in a bank robbery in Alaska. The bank robbers then stole a plane and when it went down in the Canadian Yukon, Fraser got involved in the hunt. When he caught up with Victoria, she'd become separated from her partners, and she and Fraser were caught in a blizzard. They spent 48 hours together in a makeshift shelter and it was the best 48 hours of Fraser's life. She begged him to let her go, but he couldn't. He turned her in, and she went to jail, and he's regretted it ever since.

When they're reunited in Chicago, Fraser is quick to overlook her larcenous shortcomings and they begin an affair. But then it appears that one of the other Alaskan bank robbers is on her trail. It seems that Victoria ended up with all the loot, and he wants his cut. I don't want to spoil the episode, but it's not even really the plot that matters. It's how it's told.

The episode was directed by Haggis and was co-written by Haggis and David Shore (who's currently the creator and head writer of HOUSE, MD). It featured a number of songs (to great, haunting effect) by Sarah McLachlan, which really added to the "weight" of the episode. It's one of those stories that benefits from multiple viewings, as you notice little touches that appeared to have one meaning the first time but then, with hindsight, take on a completely different meaning. For instance, when Fraser and Victoria are making love, he takes her fingers and puts them in his mouth (and viewers will remember he put her fingers in his mouth during the blizzard to try to keep them warm after she had passed out). It's an understated gesture. I didn't even catch it the first few times I watched it. A lesser show would've hit you over the head with it, but here, it almost happens out of frame.

Paul Gross gives an amazing performance, alternating between deadpan one-liners and scenes where he's literally crying with despair over what's happened. And Melina Kanakaredes is fantastic. She's utterly believeable as someone who both loves and hates Fraser. The ultimate femme fatale.

These two hours are an excellent example of how to demonstrate character through action. It was established in previous episodes (and even earlier in this episode) that Fraser is unfailingly polite and would never, ever ignore someone in need. Well, when he first catches sight of Victoria on a busy Chicago street, he literally shoves a guy out of his way, which is jarring, to say the least. But it's taken to the extreme when, later in the episode, an elderly woman approaches Fraser in tears and says, "A man just stole my purse. Can you help me?" Fraser looks at her very calmly and says, "No ma'am, I'm afraid I can't." And just drives off, leaving her standing there on an empty street in the middle of the night. It's a great way to show (not tell!) viewers that this Victoria chick is seriously messing with Fraser's head.

The show ends with a devastating climax that would've worked as a series finale, actually. In some ways, I almost wish it had. This was the next-to-last episode of the first season, and while the show went on for three more seasons, it never attained the same level of quality it had in that first season. I attribute this largely to the fact that Paul Haggis -- despite creating the show -- was not asked back after the first season.

The entire series is available on DVD at a shockingly low price. It's currently listed on Amazon for $39.99. That's for all 68 episodes! While quality dipped after the first season, it's still a good series with some truly stand-out episodes.


Kenneth said...

You can buy this set at for 26 bucks. Or for 21 dollars if you buy it before the 29th with this code: DEALCATCHER. All their DVDs are 20% off with that code. It's a pretty amazing sale. Plus, they ship for free on any order.

Also, I love your comics. I read this blog a lot, but have never posted. Apparently, a good deal inspires me...

Jason Copland said...

Those Canadians are crazy. Oh.. wait...