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Sick of American Drama? Try "Da Vinci's Inquest."

Most ranting and raving and criticizing about television has an implicit assumption: the rants are about American television. Sure, "American television" is a weird term these days, since shows like Survivor, Big Brother, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Trading Spaces, Coupling, and others are reworked versions of television programming produced elsewhere, usually for the BBC. But references to the original shows or other (ahem) "un-American programming" are usually offhanded and derogatory: this stuff doesn't really matter, they imply, but we're referring to it so you know how erudite we are.

Although I am by most measures a United States citizen and therefore a consumer of American television, I'm writing now about a Canadian television program, Da Vinci's Inquest. If you're an American who happens to receive CBC television over the air or via cable, satellite, or another of those high-falutin' technological whatsamajigger services, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Of course, if you're Canadian, you can stop reading right now. You've already heard of DaVinci's Inquest -- in fact, you've probably heard way too much about it. The show is entering its sixth season, and it's one of the highest-rated and most-lauded television programs in Canadian history. Some of its cast members have become national celebrities, the show regularly sweeps up armfuls of Gemini awards (the Canadian Emmy) every year, and Nick Campbell's leering face almost seems to be part of the CBC brand, right next to Peter Mansbridge (sort of a combination Tom Brokaw/Peter Jennings for Canada). In Canada, the show is practically inescapable.

But for us ignorant Americans, here's a rundown:

The show centers on Vancouver coroner Dominic Da Vinci (played by veteran actor Nicholas Campbell), an opinionated, irascible, world-weary former police detective, as he investigates deaths and the lives surrounding the deceased. Unlike the multitude of television shows and movies filmed in Vancouver (which use the city as a stand-in for another location), Da Vinci's Inquest is actually set in Vancouver, often focusing on the downtown east side. Per capita, the community is one of the most impoverished in Canada, and, although it has positive aspects, it's also a been haven for drug abuse, prostitution, and homelessness.

Before you start thinking Da Vinci is a rehash of Quincy, Crossing Jordan, or some show with CSI in its name, there are a couple things to bear in mind. First, Da Vinci debuted in 1998 and thus substantially pre-dates Crossing Jordan and CSI -- if anything, those shows are influenced by Da Vinci's Inquest, not the other way around. Second, while Quincy was an aging wannabe-ladies-man with a heart of gold, his world was embarrassingly straightforward and antiseptic compared to the legal, moral, and personal ambiguity DaVinci faces every episode -- and that's leaving aside the equally convoluted situations surrounding the rest of the characters, who are very much equal partners in the show rather than sidekicks to Da Vinci. In Quincy, every episode wrapped neatly; in Da Vinci, viewers are often left with more questions than answers -- and many of the questions are contradictory.

And here's another twist: the character of Dominic Da Vinci is based loosely on Larry Campbell (no relation to Nick Campbell), a controversial former chief coroner for British Colombia who is currently Vancouver's mayor. While Da Vinci and Larry Campbell have a few things in common -- both advocate regulated red light districts, for example -- Da Vinci isn't simply a fictionalized tribute to Larry Campbell. Heck, if I were Larry Campbell, the Da Vinci character would offend me: Da Vinci is a sexist, occasionally bigoted, insensitive, often boorish former(?) drunk who's all-too-quick to jump to conclusions, point fingers, and assign blame. And yet Larry Campbell has writing credits on a handful of early Da Vinci episodes (all produced before he became Vancouver mayor, to my knowledge). Da Vinci's Inquest was created by Chris Haddock, who, not coincidentally, is the creator of CBS's new drama about undercover FBI agents, The Handler.

Storylines on Da Vinci's Inquest tend to span multiple episodes and even multiple seasons; some end firmly in an arrest or closing of a case, while others just peter away, leaving you wondering (along with the characters) if anything really resolved, or if something is going to come back and bite you in the ass next week, or the week after... or the year after. Sometimes, stories do both: just because it's not on camera doesn't mean it's over and done. Da Vinci's writing is unusual, top-notch stuff: stories can proceed from what may seem the most boring of crime-show premises ("oh, missing prostitutes again, ho hum") to a multi-season-spanning arc as a detective, not without doubts, risks her career, the department budget, and the lives of her informants and fellow officers to flush out a murderer. The whole time, viewers -- and her fellow cops -- have no idea whether she's doing the right thing, and when she mis-steps (repeatedly), you get an almost visceral sense of the fears the detective is facing: personal and professional failure, failing oft-ignored crime victims, abusing her position, doing the wrong thing, and -- at one point -- even fear for her life. Unlike CSI, stories on Da Vinci's Inquest don't turn on the chemical properties of some synthetic fabric under ultraviolet light after it's been exposed to earwax from an albino dwarf with a rare liver condition: instead, you're on the edge of your seat wondering whether a teenage prostitute cum police informant really thinks she can play two cops against each other, or whether the next time you see her will be when she turns up OD'd in an alley.

Some episodes take major risks with format and content, such as when young detective Mick Leary extracts a confession from a murderer over an all-night, whisky-fueled poker game, or the lead pathologist pursues a possibly genocidal effort to sterilize aboriginal women only to find its perpetrator, now long-retired, still knows his name but that's about all: he has no memory of his actions. Because Canadian broadcast regulations are different from standards and practices enforced by American networks, Da Vinci's Inquest can get away with things that were exclusively the province of premium cable services or (very recently) late-night basic cable: the series' first season arc features a sequence in which a prostitute is murdered by alcohol poisoning which has to be one of the most horrific scenes ever put on television. One third season episode -- It's Backwards Day, initially conceived out of a budget crunch -- takes place in real time, with Da Vinci at one end of an alley and detectives Leary and Shannon at the other, and the entire first act is one continuous take.

Some cases are deliberately annoying. Da Vinci spent a better part of a season pursuing a bureaucratic nightmare involving the construction of a parking lot: not what you'd usually consider appointment television. But building the parking lot entailed removing and re-interning graves in a small cemetery, and guess what was found in one of the graves? Two bodies. Whose bodies are these? What's the right thing to do? How to investigate commingled remains in a thirty year-old grave? Of course, the developers aren't happy about having their work shut down, and apply pressure to politicians who, of course, lean hard on the coroner's office to sweep it under the rug. And some stories highlight that police and the coroner's office face cruelty, disappointment, anger, and grief every day, and no amount of law, justice, or money can fix everything. A man loses his daughter in a tragic house fire which looks for all the world to have been an accident: unable to accept that, he continually shows up at Da Vinci's office, politely yet insistently asking about the status of the investigation into his daughter's murder. Then he appears at the scene of another house fire where a death occurred, taking pictures, in his mind trying to make sure the coroner's office doesn't ignore this case like his daughter's.

And it's not as if Da Vinci's Inquest is all overcast, rain-soaked Vancouver days and dark, rain-soaked Vancouver nights: there's a fair bit of humor in the series. Some comes from Chick, a crime scene investigator played with an almost naive enthusiasm by veteran actor Alex Diakun, and the dynamic between aged, old-boy detective Leo Shannon and his younger, too-smart-for-his-own-good partner Mick Leary easily beats anything you've seen on Law & Order or NYPD Blue, occasionally with hysterical results. And Da Vinci's scatterbrained interaction with his administrative assistant Helen -- played charmingly by Sarah Strange -- is always a highlight.

Which brings us to Da Vinci's cast. As strong as the Da Vinci's Inquest writing is, it's brought to life by astonishingly good actors, who often don't know what's happening to their characters until they start shooting. If you've seen television or films produced in Canada in the last 15 years -- and who hasn't? -- you've probably seen all these people before: they're the character actors who populate almost every television series and movie shot in the Toronto and Vancouver area. Seen a silly sci-fi show for kids made since 1990? These folks have probably been on it. The cast is headed up by Nicholas Campbell as Da Vinci. Campbell's among the least visible of the Da Vinci's cast to American TV audiences (he recently turned up on an episode of Monk), although he's done an astonishing number of TV movies, independent films, and Canadian projects (Naked Lunch, Street Legal, Major Crime, etc.) and he may be most known for writing and directing his biography of Peter Tosh, Stepping Razor. (And once you know his face, you can see him slip by in things as far back as Space: 1999, The Spy Who Loved Me, and the original Dead Zone.) Campbell's alternately haggard, crusty, and gallant demeanor lend themselves well to the Da Vinci character, and he's won lots of awards for his performance. Campbell's good, but he's the lead: he's supposed to be good.

For my money, I prefer the rest of the cast, particularly the "police contingent" currently embodied by Donnelly Rhodes, Ian Tracey, Sarah Jane Redmond, Venus Terzo, and Kim Hawthorne. Rhodes plays Detective Leo Shannon, a homicide cop nearing retirement: he's lived in Vancouver his whole life, but as the city changes he's becoming an alien and anachronism there: now his boss is a woman, his partner's "mixing the races" in his romantic life, whole neighborhoods are going downhill, and he's had to institutionalize his wife who suffers from Alzheimer's. He's a good cop, but he's a dean of the old school with some major skeletons in his closet: Rhodes has also won awards for his role. The standout in the cast to my mind is Ian Tracey - who you've seen in everything, trust me -- who plays Mick Leary, a young cop promoted early to detective and partnered with Shannon on the basis of his technical skills. Over the seasons, we've watched Leary evolve from naiveté to a dedicated, humane, and very competent investigator... only to watch him fall apart following the death of a young female officer, in which he may (or may not!) have been more culpable than we know. Things ain't looking good for Mick, but it's great watching how Ian Tracey takes him there. Kim Hawthorne plays recent addition Rose Williams, a vice cop looking to get transferred to homicide. When she shows up, you think: oh good, the writers have inserted a character to play against grey-haired, cantankerous Shannon, who will dislike her because she's a woman, she's young, she's black, and she wants his job. And that's what Shannon thinks. But instead, we realize Williams is a good cop who's not looking to put one over on Shannon or anyone else, and -- as Shannon's partner Leary falls apart, he looks to be the one who will be left twisting in the wind.

Venus Terzo and Sarah Jane Redmond -- who you've also seen (and in Terzo's case, heard) in everything, trust me -- suffer from a common problem among female television cops: they're too attractive. In Terzo's case, I had trouble believing her Angela Kosmo was a detective, as her model-good-looks and first season storyline (involving her romantically with Leary's undercover-cop brother, Danny, wonderfully played by underrated actor Max Martini, who you saw die horribly in Saving Private Ryan) undermined her credibility. But, rather than ditching the character, Da Vinci's writers turned her around, giving her a thankless, near-impossible assignment (investigating the basically-ignored deaths of prostitutes), no partner, and precious little help. And Terzo quickly proved she can carry Detective Kosmo anywhere -- and just to seal the package, Kosmo had to deal with Danny Leary again, this time as the one yanking his chain: the difference was like night and day. Conversely, Sarah Jane Redmond (who became well known in the U.S. as the Devil on Millennium) plays Sergeant Kurtz, who heads up the homicide squad following the suicide of its former sergeant. Kurtz is very aware that she's a woman in a man's world, but she's proven an able leader, overcoming her initial instinct to put Leo Shannon out to pasture, able to participate closely in a case when needed, yet willing to give her detectives the space to do their jobs. Kurtz's fatal flaw may be that she doesn't know enough about her people -- particularly Shannon and Leary. Kurtz was also the subject of last season's most bizarre storyline, wherein she became the fixation of a mentally disturbed female neighbor. The primary thing which made the story compelling -- even possible -- was Redmond's ability to convey Kurtz's continuing astonishment that it was happening at all.

It wouldn't be a show about a coroner without a morgue, and that means pathologists. In the first three seasons, the show's head pathologist was Patricia Da Vinci -- the main character's ex-wife -- played by Gwynyth Walsh. As you might expect, the two Da Vinci's bump heads over both personal and professional issues, and over their daughter Gabriella, played in the first two seasons by FireFly's Jewel Staite. Since Patricia's departure to teach pathology, we've had fewer scenes staged around bodies on slabs, and the morgue has been headed up by Sunita "Sunny" Ramen, played by Sue Mathew. Sunny is, unfortunately, the most under-developed central character of Da Vinci's Inquest: a competent investigator who sticks to her guns, she and Detective Leary were romantically linked until Leary started cracking up: I don't think either of them knows what the status of their relationship might be right now. Sunny is most marked by her tendency not to rush to judgment: she always seems aware there are possibilities which haven't been pursued yet.

A slew of other talented and well-known Canadian actors have gone through Da Vinci's Inquest: Da Vinci's boss was originally played by Robert Wisdon (oft-recognized as "the pusher" in a few X-Files episodes); Gerard Plunkett is the new Chief Coroner. Stephen Miller (you'd know him if you saw his picture!) plays detective Zack McNab, whose scenes sparring with Da Vinci over alternate theories of traffic events can be fall-down funny. Although not strictly Canadian, Matt Frewer of Max Headroom fame did a disturbing multi-episode arc in the second season (although for some people, anything Matt Frewer does is disturbing). Peter Williams appeared in three seasons as erstwhile-but-still-learning assistant coroner Morris Winston, and Lee Jay Bamberry has popped up as the cocksure Montreal police detective Roy LaBoucane.

Enough: none of this conveys the essence of Da Vinci's Inquest. The show can be gritty like grinding bones, smooth and companionable, utterly unsentimental, and socially conscious all at the same time. Every episode features multiple stories, although it's unlikely that many -- or even any of them -- will be neatly wrapped up at the end of the hour. The stories are plot-driven -- like most police procedurals, they rely on certain events happening in a particular order -- but they do not unfold like carefully plotted tales: instead, characters can spend months trying to figure out their next move, or have something utterly unexpected suddenly sideswipe them -- just like real life. Events are inextricably tied to the characters participating in them. As a result, the pacing of Da Vinci's Inquest can be frustrating -- on more than one occasion, I've wondered if an episode had ended, or if CBC had merely screwed up its feed -- and the CBC's increasingly unfathomable broadcast schedule doesn't help things.

But Da Vinci's Inquest is worth the effort. The sixth season is scheduled to start with a two-hour episode Sunday, November 23, and then appear at 9 PM Sundays on CBC until it's interrupted and rescheduled by hockey, holiday specials, the Queen visiting a relative, or Mr. Bean reruns. This year, look for Da Vinci to face promotion: rumor is he'll be a candidate for chief of police, and will have to learn to bite his tongue and play politics. Also look for Shannon and Leary be repartnered: my bet would be Shannon and Williams, while Kosmo will have to decide whether to let Leary sink or to try to help him swim. If you receive CBC, try to catch it, or at least give some thought to programming your VCR or one of those incomprehensible digital gizmo thingies. You won't regret it.


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