The key to better Canadian crime shows lies in our past

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Amid the current abundance of watchable, nay addictive, TV series, there's Mozart in the Jungle. Très, très amusant. It's about love, hate, humour, misery -- and music -- in a fictional New York symphony orchestra.

Two seasons of 10 bite-sized episodes are now up. Gael Garcia Bernal plays an adorable Mexican conductor, less modelled than 3D printed from Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, though the show omits Dudamel's connection to the late Hugo Chavez, who embraced El Sistema, a Venezuela-based music program for poor kids. Malcolm McDowell plays The Old Maestro as an analogue rogue to the lawyer he created on the lamented (by me) series, Franklin and Bash.

For those obsessed with why Canada has failed to participate in the explosion of quality episodic TV -- though countries as small as Denmark join in -- it suggests a solution: How about a series based on an institution of high culture like an orchestra? Oh wait, we did that -- and it worked!

It was Slings & Arrows, about actors in a not even thinly disguised Stratford Shakespearean Festival. It had three six-hour seasons from 2003 to 2006. If you mention it to anyone who hasn't heard tell, a disgusted look spreads over them and they gasp. Canadian culture as premise? Yet it's gripping, dark, funny, the characters draw you in and you start binge watching.

David Simon, who created The Wire, said it gave him writer envy. The fact it wasn't more successful proves nothing. Lots of fine series didn't spread far. But they're how you build a groundwork, on which other shows feed and grow.

Why did it work? Culture workers like actors and writers know our cultural institutions intensely; they live and die with them. So it rang with artistic truth.

But enough about culture about culture. Let's not avoid the overarching issue: cop shows, crime shows, anything with violence. Those are the grail. Why do we always fail? It's not for want of trying for 50 years, from Sidestreet and Night Heat to Flashpoint, Murdoch Mysteries, Republic of Doyle. They're not unwatchable but once you start, you're not compelled to stick with them or return. (That's my experience, feel free to scoff.)

Let's come at it from the other end: why do others succeed? At Christmas the BBC produced yet another version of Agatha Christie's 1939 novel And Then There Were None. Everybody knows how it goes yet millions watched and loved it. The script adapter, who hadn't read it before, said she was shocked by its coldness and brutality. What do writers like Christie draw on to portray cold and brutal? Some of it's surely personal, but some is larger. The U.K. is steeped in violence, from the coercion of other peoples into Great Britain (it's English writers, not Irish or Scots, who write most of the crime stuff); then the empire and its bloody expansion. The class war at home, dispossessions of farmers.

The U.S. too is drenched in violence it's grimly aware of: from genocides of native peoples through slavery to Black Lives Matter. Denmark has its Viking past; Sweden, which also does copcult, has the Viking piece plus imperial wars. You write on violence with conviction when that past lives on in you somehow.

Canada has its own history of violence, including two world wars. But since the 1950s there's been an effort to see ourselves as peacekeepers. I endorse that -- but what happened to the past? This is my problem with peacekeeping and tolerance as "Canadian values." It makes them sound like part of our eternal nature rather than a new component we've chosen to try to construct now. In the process you lose or deny what was also part of you and to some extent still is. Denial rarely works out well. And this happens to be denial of the part that can be drawn on if you want to deal with crime and violence.

You end up with crimefighters like Howard Engel's amiable private eye, Benny Cooperman, who always orders egg salad sandwiches. There's more real sense of violence in the staged Macbeth scenes in Slings & Arrows than in all the murders in Murdoch Mysteries or Company X (about the Second World War) or The Romeo Section's cold cynicism. Those "Stratford actors" feel existential rage and despair -- as Canadian actors -- and they pour every bit into their "play."

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Cheryl Brash/S.S. Keewatin/flickr

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