I’ve written a time or two before about the Canadian TV series King — here, and a bit here, and here — so I wasn’t sure if there was any point in revisiting the topic. But, y’know, there are always those series people and even professional critics champion — upon which they expend recurring ink in an, at times, Sisyphus-tic effort to push audience numbers up the ratings hill. Even in Canada, series like Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, or Intelligence, have secured cheerleaders in the press. So why not me, eh?
Canadian TV is a curious beast — often suffering from tepid ratings (though not as bad as detractors claim) and feeling like it’s struggling to achieve success. Yet, at the same time, one could argue given how few series are aired in a year (compared to Hollywood) it’s remarkable the percentage of good series. I mean, I’m more than comfortable saying series like Arctic Air, Bomb Girls, Being Human, Flashpoint and others are all well-made, entertaining shows — and there are series I don’t like, that nonetheless boast solid ratings and a fandom. But as much as I like and enjoy them (and some others) I do think King may be my favourite Canadian TV series on the air right now (and among my top favourites, Canadian or American). And I’m not even necessarily a big devotee of cops n’ robbers crime-dramas (I’ve liked some over the years, others I enjoy, but don’t necessarily see as more than an occasional watch on a slow night).
King is a police crime-drama that airs on Showcase — and though it’s generally well regarded I’ll make the case that it deserves a lot more kudos than it’s receiving. Ratings wise, it’s struggling — curiously, this year the ratings are even lower, despite no appreciable drop in quality (some reviews saying it’s even better now, in its sophomore year). Granted, it’s been moved to a new night (Wednesdays) and time slot, which may be a factor. And though it’s a cliche for fans of low-rated TV series to blame marketing and lack of PR, I would argue that King doesn’t really seem to get much of a push from programmers. Earlier this year, its first season was given a second window airing on network TV, on Global — except the re-runs were accompanied by next to no marketing or promotion that I was aware of (in contrast to Bomb Girls and The Firm, both of which received commercial ads up the whazzoo — and had solid ratings). At least, it received little promotion outside of venues devoted to Canadian productions (such as the website TV-Eh) — but that’s a bit like preaching to the choir, ain’t it?
Most people I’ve mentioned the series too haven’t even heard of it!
Since I can be as fascinated by the way people react to a movie or TV show, as intrigued by the process of forming an opinion, as I can be by a show itself, I’m curious about how people react to King. As I said, I think it has generally received good reviews. But they can be a bit perfunctory. As in: “Yeah, it’s a good cop drama…now let’s move on…”
I can’t decide if that’s because I’m seeing too much in it…or whether its subtler, juicier bits are just whizzing over the heads of a lot of critics.
In a way, King should be that ideal melange of aspects: it’s a perfectly mainstream, perfectly accessible cop drama — that nonetheless is quirky and offers aspects I’ve rarely (if ever) seen in other cop series. If you like Bones, or The Mentalist, or CSI or what have you, you should feel perfectly at home with King. The stories are well paced, with plenty of twists and turns and red herrings to hold you through the commercial breaks. And if occasionally you can guess the solution, it’s usually just a scene or two before the heroes — and that’s because they generally are playing fair with the clues (unlike some detective series). And the plots generally hold together. A problem I have with Republic of Doyle (which, admittedly, sees itself as a comedy-drama) is that often I feel you can drive the entire island of Newfoundland through the plot holes and gaps in logic and plausibility in many of its episodes, as though they’re shooting from first draft scripts. And even American series like, for instance, The Mentalist can leave me shaking my head in disbelief at the ludicrousness of the plot and solution.
King’s basically of the straight-faced “realist” detective genre — it’s not about a colourful psychic, or novelist, or whoever helping the police. There’s even a deliberately raw, 1970s vibe evoking that seminal era of crime dramas (including a jazzy score). At the same time…there’s a lot of wit and humour, making it more than just a dour procedural, with a few eccentrics in the squad you wouldn’t find in most real station houses.
But as I say, in broad strokes, King is JACS (just another cop show) — but given the prevalence of such shows, you might think that would be commercially advantageous. Particularly as I would argue it’s better than many — well paced, with reasonably plausible mysteries.
Yet I’m not always a huge fan of cop dramas — I mean, I can enjoy ’em, but I can equally take or leave a lot of them, too. So what catches my attention about King is that for all that it’s JACS — equally it’s its own animal.
For one thing, and it might be a minor distinction, is that by being about an umbrella “Major Crimes” Task Force, the stories can stray outside of the rigidly formulaic “murder of the week” plots of most detective series. Sometimes — yes. But sometimes the stories involve robberies or kidnapping, where no one ends up dead by the end credits. It can allow for different stories…or different flavours to old stories.
There’s also just some good writing in King — at least, to my mind. Quirky exchanges, or subtle dialogue with punch. A scene in a recent episode about a kidnapping has King pragmatically reflecting on the necessity of paying the ransom by saying: “Worse case scenario, we get the girl back and the kidnappers escape with the money.” To which her colleague says: “That’s not the worst case scenario.” I dunno — I just liked that exchange, and what it says about the characters (their focus on the victim more than punishing the crooks) and how the meaning is in what they aren’t saying.
There is an emotional content to many of the episodes. Whereas a lot crime-dramas are basically procedurals, following a trail of twists and turns, the suspects and guest stars basically there to pad out an interrogation scene, in King there is a human drama aspect to the cases (reminding me, in a way, of the well-regarded American cop drama, Life). The victims (and victimizers) are usually characters, and not just plot devices, and King herself in a few episodes butts heads with other characters as she reminds them their first priority is protecting the innocent, more than punishing the guilty. And this maybe leads to consistently good guest star performances — it isn’t that King is drawing upon a different talent pool than other Canadian TV series, but the actors are given actual parts to play, emotions to realize. And sometimes it’s unexpected roles — like Aaron Berg in the first season as the leader of a White Supremacist group. He only has three or four scenes…but each one succinctly peels back another layer of the character, and he has to play each facet. A lot of cop dramas I can barely recall who was in an episode, while I could fill up the entire Guest Star category at the Geminis solely with King nominations, in part because the roles (and the choices the actors make when playing those roles) aren’t always what you’d expect.
And maybe it’s the very succinctness of the roles that is so impressive. Flashpoint boasts some nice guest turns — but that’s kind of obvious, since the guest stars are the focus of the episodes, the plots wrapped around them. In King, the actors might only get two or three scenes…but they can be well written, well acted scenes with emotional punch.
And then we get to the regular cast, and the regular characters.
I sometimes find that I can watch things and feel there’s nothing wrong with the acting — the actors give you the emotions you need — but I can “see” the performance. I’m aware of the choices the actors make when pausing, or twitching their eyebrow. And I’ll admit — I’m just not “seeing” that in King. Most of the actors seem so in tune with their characters that you are with them, in the moment. Maybe only after the fact, during the commercial, do you stop and think about how they played they scene, but during the show, the actors are their characters. That’s a large credit to the actors…but also maybe a nod to the dialogue and the direction. The scene, or the moment, zigging when you just assumed it was going to zag.
There’s been a bit of a cast change for the new season, with Aaron Poole and Zoe Doyle gone (as well as Suzanne Coy, but she was written out mid-way through the last season — which was too bad) replaced by Rossif Sutherland and Karen Robinson. When I heard about the cast shake up, I had visions of a “baby with the bath water” overhaul — but it really does feel like precision fine tuning: The good things about King remain. Poole and Doyle were, frankly, weaker links — not necessarily a criticism of the actors themselves, maybe just the roles, or their placing in the ensemble dynamic. But Robinson and Sutherland feel like stronger support beams in the King house. Robinson brings an understatedness to her role, nicely keeping the scenes rooted in a kind of quasi-realism. While Sutherland adds a quirkiness, without being (too often) distractingly colourful — his neophyte character seems like he’d be more at home academically giving seminars at the Police Academy than prowling the mean streets. Sutherland has begun to make his mark recently in Canadian film and TV, but this kind of self-depecrating everyman role inparticular really plays to his strengths — and, indeed, for the first time I can actually see a bit of his famous dad, Donald, in his performance. Maybe it’s because of King’s 1970s vibe, but you can see a slight echo of Donald from his Klute or Invasion of the Body Snatchers Days. And Rossif Sutherland brings a mumbling low-keyness to his delivery, further putting you in mind of the early 1970s and Hollywood’s flirtation with a cinema verite style (an early scene with Sutherland, where he jokes about his height allowing him to reach the top shelfs, being an example).
And both Robinson and Sutherland’s characters suggest where King’s heart lies — this isn’t a macho action show. These are cops who would rather be investigating than getting into shoot outs (though Sutherland has been called on to tackle a suspect or two).
But the real character heart of King remains with King herself, and star Amy Price-Francis, and the romantic triangle formed with fellow detective Spears (Alan Van Sprang) and King’s husband (Gabriel Hogan). Van Sprang and Hogan are very good — again, rooting you in the moment and their characters, rather than thinking about the actors rehearsing their lines before a mirror to get that perfect arched eyebrow look. Van Sprang, inparticular, has to play a character who is equally King’s stalwart right hand, a competent investigator in his own right…and also a hopelessly love-struck would be suitor who hears “maybe” when King says “no”…without being too creepy about it.
There are a lot of TV heroes who are perfectly fine…and perfectly bland. The characters popped out of a cookie cutter — generic heroes, whose dialogue you could probably mouth ten seconds before the actors do. I just caught the first episode of the new, big budget U.S. drama Missing, with Ashley Judd. It was…okay (albeit with a dubious premise, where you can’t help thinking she’s hindering, more than helping, the investigation by insisting on going it alone!) Anyway…the thing is, Judd’s character was a likeable, perfectly okay heroine…and, at least based on the pilot episode, a perfectly bland, perfectly non-descript personality. A nice, safe, middle-of-the-road heroine. There was nothing particularly quirky about her, or that you could hang your hat on (though I did like the cute scene where she’s interrogating a young woman…and then chastises her for smoking, the “mom” side of her personality momentarily overriding the “secret agent” side). It’s a role counting as much on Judd’s charisma as the written words to interest us. And that’s basically true of a lot of TV heroes — we tend to define heroes by very narrow parameters. Particularly female heroes. *
And I don’t fully fault that. I’ve certainly seen series where they go for something off-beat…and all you end up with is an obnoxious lead, or a character that’s just too hard to empathize with. A lot of series I’m cool on because I don’t especially like the heroes…but equally, a lot of series I’m cool on because there’s nothing interesting or unexpected about the heroes. You could take the dialogue for a character in one cop drama, and put it in the mouth of the hero in another cop drama, and no one would notice the switch.
But if King, the series, is a fairly straight forward mystery/crime-drama (albeit with an eye to Human Drama undercurrents) King, the character, strikes me as a bracingly original, refreshing heroine. Despite my mentioning that King is “realistic”, there is a certain heightenedness to King herself — she really is supposed to be the smartest, sharpest person in the room. Sherlock Holmes more than just a middling-to-bright investigator. She also knows it — and her character is fun to watch because she is, at times rude, brusque, obnoxious, a character with few filters on what she says and does. Often bruising those around her, but unintentionally, like the scene where she hands her temporarily estranged husband his cash “allowance” in front of other characters — something definitely humiliating to his macho ego. But the point of King…is that she isn’t deliberately mean, she just is myopically focused. She’s House…if House was fundamentally a nice, compassionate, well meaning person. But that’s what makes her interesting — she’s a paradox. She’s both the (emotionally) strongest, toughest — flintiest — character in the room…and yet also fragile, bottling up her hearbreaks and frustrations. And, of course, a good character has feet of clay, so with King we’re aware of her blunders as well as her successes. She’s a great cop — a liberal, compassionate cop more interested in justice than protecting the boy’s club of the “thin blue line” — but her personal life is a mess. Some of it she’s trying to deal with…some of which she’s responsible for.
And part of that is the juggling of the two men in her life: the husband she’s seemingly committed to…and the co-worker who she sends wildly mixed signals to. I mean, there aren’t too many series where our heroine — the gal we are supposed to be rooting for and sympathetic to — gets pregnant and yet can’t honestly say for sure whether her lawful husband is even the father! I can imagine conservative viewers as lumping it in with Modern Family and all the other series they see as responsible for the “decline of western civilization”. More to the point, she doesn’t entirely care. As she says to Spears (the possible father) “the baby isn’t yours…it will never be yours.” The meaning being: the world is as she wills it to be, biology be damned.
It’s perhaps problematic to attribute too much politics to a show’s success or failure — sometimes audience indifference is just audience indifference. But I could well imagine King having a bit of trouble winning viewers precisely because of its female lead. Not that there haven’t been female led cop dramas before — but King premiered around the same time as female-led U.S. series like The Chicago Code and Prime Suspect, both of which I believe enjoyed good reviews, and both of which suffered from poor ratings. The cop genre — specifically the “realist” cop drama (as opposed to those about colourful amateur detectives) — can be a bit mired in Old School machismo. While Jessica King is definitely the Alpha Dog in her pack, not just professionally, but personally, the men basically pursuing her like love struck puppies. Heck, King had a tryst with a co-worker and it remains an Elephant in the Room with her husband…neither of them has overtly acknowledged it, but we can infer the husband kind of knows it happened. That’s a reverse of the usual gender cliches — the wife who would rather not know about possible infidelities. Yet if King might be too strong a female for those with fragile male egos…her feet of clay, her inner fragility, her eccentricities (like a penchant for foot wear) might equally turn off some female viewers who often seem to feel women heroes have to be uber-women, that to suggest a female hero is any less than perfect is somehow a misogynistic conspiracy.
Personally, I kind of like troubled heroines carrying around a certain amount of baggage. Indeed, as a guy, maybe I’m a bit sexist…because I probably cut a troubled (pretty) female hero more slack than I would a similarly written male hero, who I might just dismiss as an obnoxious pig. Of course, that might be partly because if some of King’s characteristics were written into a male character…the (male) writers might not intend then to be perceived as character flaws! But as I say, I have a fondness for damaged heroines whose greatest virtues can equally be their biggest flaws — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, Claire Danes in Homeland, Sarah Shahi in Life, Sarah Shahi in Fairly Legal…uh, okay, maybe I just like Sarah Shahi.
But that’s the point — King isn’t always admirable…even as she is sympathetic. And part of that — a lot of that — is attributable to star Amy Price-Francis. I could imagine a lot of actresses — good, talented actresses — who couldn’t pull the threads together as well. In whose hands King would be just obnoxious, rather than endearingly acerbic. Or who couldn’t quite pull off the “brains”. Or couldn’t quite convince you this pretty, slender “girl” could ride herd over a squad of detectives simply through force of will. I mentioned before the “choices” an actor must make when playing a scene — where to put in the pause, whether to smile or frown during a certain line. And I love Price-Francis’ choices…even as you can rarely put your finger on them, Jessica King, not Amy Price-Francis, seeming to be in control of the moment. And, again, that’s also a mark of the writing and the direction.
Granted — and I suspect I’m crossing a line here — I do sometimes wish Price-Francis’ friends and co-workers would make a little more effort to gently steer her toward the catering truck between takes. Still, I guess different people have different metabolisms, and only Price-Francis (and her GP) know if she’s looking after herself enough.
What’s perhaps interesting about King’s femaleness is that it is actually used as part of the narrative. By that I mean, though there have been heroines heading cop dramas before (in Canada there was Cold Squad and Blue Murder, and probably others) usually the parts could just as easily have been re-written for a male character. But with King’s plot lines involving pregnancy — trying to get pregnant, being pregnant, trying to figure out how to juggle career and family — her dilemmas are specifically geared toward a female heroine. And this allows the series to work in scenes and sub-plots I’m not sure I’ve seen in other cop dramas — sometimes painfully so.
In a recent episode, while the squad investigated a generic kidnapping plot (with the usual twists and turns, involving rival businesses, and a Romeo & Juliet aspect) underneath is a sub-plot where the pregnant King starts to miscarry. At first it’s just a few minor warning signs, and her doctor advises her to simply go home, take it easy, and hope for the best. So King runs the investigation literally from her bedroom. But there’s just a heartbreaking inevitability to that plot line, as King is initially being nonchalant, carrying on like this is a minor inconvenience, yet as the episode progresses, and her symptoms become more acute, rather than lessening, both she and those around her are aware of where it’s headed…and there’s not a lot that can be done. There are a lot of things that can be treated with pills or procedures, but if the human body starts to miscarry, that’s just biology.
As I say, I’m not sure I’ve seen a miscarriage plot in a cop drama before — and, indeed, usually in non-crime dramas it’s more “dramatic”, the shocking moment where the heroine finds blood on the sheets. The very nonchalance of its treatment in King, the very doling it out over the episode as a slow, inevitable, progression, just made it surprisingly dramatic.
Of course for those who say they don’t turn on a cop drama to watch miscarriage plots, or to wonder who the heroine will sleep with, it should be reaffirmed that these are, of course, sub-plots. The bread and the butter of the weekly episodes are first and foremost the crimes — the mystery, the cases, the snappy banter. But as with so many modern series, a part of what drags you back from week to week is the character stuff.
I’ve said a time or two before that every story has been told — and so that’s why it can be in the little things, the quirky embellishments, that a story becomes reinvigorated. Certainly in some of King’s cases-of-the-week you can hear echoes of similar plots used in previous crime-dramas (though I remember coming upon one posting by someone who criticized King for supposedly stealing a plot from another cop series…but that series, itself, had stolen it from yet an earlier series) so it’s in the little details that old stories become new, the individuality of the characters, the narrative focus (is it about the crime? or the impact of the crime on the victims?). It isn’t that the threads involving King’s private life should be weighted over the mystery-crime plots…but it’s the fact of them, and how it shapes the character interaction, that means the primary scenes dealing with the mystery-crime plots can be distinguished from Law & Order, or Flashpoint (and those series can be distinguished from King).
Writing all this about King — which, after all, has turned into a literary-style analysis as much as a review — probably won’t change anyone’s mind who has seen it. I mean — it might. I’ve certainly seen (or read) things that I was casually indifferent to, yet then when someone drew my attention to the subtleties, the nuances, I did find myself going back and appreciating things I glossed over the first time. But probably if you were indifferent to King, my praising it won’t change your mind — nor should it necessarily. But maybe if you haven’t seen King, or even heard of it, reading my rather fawning assessment of it might encourage you to seek it out and give it a try. And decide for yourself.
Added May 8: For more of me prattling about King — here’s a later post with a (slightly) more critical eye.
* Post-script added Mar. 23: I just wanted to make the point that I’m not actually criticizing the heroine in Missing — indeed, after seeing the 2nd episode, I like Ashley Judd’s performance, and I like her character (whether or not I’ll keep watching the series itself, I’m not decided on, yet). She’s a well-rounded enough role — she has moments of joy, of sadness, of kindness, of rage — but I just mean there is nothing distinctive about her, as far as a personality or character-type. She’s not dark and grim, she’s not witty and wisecracking, so far there’s no indication she loves Monster Truck rallies, or has a passion for Italian operas. And there’s nothing wrong with that — but it’s what I mean about a generic hero.