Watching the premiere of Republic of Doyle, a new private investigator series from CBC set in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I came to a conclusion: Burn Notice is a really great show.
Now, it may seem anti-nationalist for me to suggest that a Canadian series only made me conclude how great an American show is, but there is something very frustrating about Republic of Doyle that makes me respect the way Burn Notice has a very clear sense of its identity and doesn’t feel overburdened by either character drama or weekly cases that feel too generic by half. Doyle is not a terrible show, but what it struggles with is feeling like it actually knows what it is: numerous shots of the St. John’s harbour and the colourful houses of the downtown aren’t enough to give the show any sort of distinctive Newfoundland identity, and the show doesn’t bother to get onto its feet before throwing us into a bland procedural structure that needed to be more in order for us to come to care about these characters in any capacity.
There’s a show here somewhere, one where a group of relatively engaging people work together to solve crimes. However, the show has yet to find its own identity to the point where the pilot represents a definitive misfire, especially when you’ve seen Burn Notice negotiate the same types of problems which plague the show with some compelling dramaturgy.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this show reductive of Burn Notice, since I’m sure they were conceived separately, but they are very much of the same cloth. Both owe much of their plotting to 80s-style police shows (Doyle most often compared with the Rockford Files, Burn Notice with MacGyver), and both feature a lead character who is surrounded by a group of somewhat “out there” people who make his job more difficult. However, there are two distinct areas where this perfectly acceptable formula goes wrong with Doyle.
The first is that Allan Hawco (who co-created and stars in the show) has crafted Doyle into a bit of a ladies man, and someone who to be entirely honest with you I don’t actually like very much. I get the idea that he’s supposed to be somewhat brash, which is why he tackles the graffiti artist he’s chasing as the episode starts and is in the process of a messy divorce, but I don’t entirely know why I’m supposed to have any sort of attachment to this character outside of the fact that we’re supposed to. There was a missing ingredient here that would help explain why Jake Doyle is deserving of our empathy, especially since being a womanizer isn’t exactly the kind of quality that I find all that appealing. On shows like this, the protagonist needs to be the person we care about more than the person we find entertaining, and since I don’t find the show that exciting there’s even less to be attached to when it comes to Doyle as a character.
The other issue is that when the show becomes about the “case,” it more or less stops dead. The formula they want to go with here is that Doyle is unpredictable and fun, and yet there were other moments where the show wanted to portray Doyle as serious and focused. And the way the case unfolded, it seemed like they didn’t entirely know where the tone was going to sit, so the unpredictability seemed immature and silly while the seriousness seemed undercut by that behaviour. The idea of using a case in which Doyle is personally involved makes sense to show the latter, and yet because of the supposed seriousness his other behaviour seemed totally out of line and, actually, placing his life and his friend’s life in jeopardy. And because we never actually got to see them acting like friends, it was a gross violation of “show don’t tell”: we never got to see this friendship, so talking about it doesn’t actually accomplish much of anything.
Burn Notice does a lot of these things, but Michael Weston is a character with a purpose (to clear his name) and whose motivations (helping others) are always clear and never undercut by his being a cad. And more importantly, the show knows when things are serious and when things are silly, and it uses different characters to move between the two roles (Fi and Sam handling most of the comic material, Michael only rarely being involved directly). And while Republic of Doyle could eventually find itself, news of showrunner changes in the show’s run doesn’t give me much confidence that the show ever entirely finds its own identity. The episode’s conclusion suggests we’re supposed to care about romantic entanglements and teenage rebellion, and I just don’t know if that’s enough to keep me interested – actually, scratch that, I know it’s not enough.
- If I had one big complaint, it’s that the show seemed to want to keep reminding us it was set in St. John’s and yet never felt like it was distinctly regional in its outlook. I know the show is trying to appeal to Canadians as a whole, but the case could have taken place in any province outside of the “Evil people are from Alberta because that’s where Newfoundlanders go to get work!” However, that could have easily taken place in Cape Breton, so I’m waiting for the show to actually engage with the culture beyond traditional urban concerns (there’s a point to be made that City Hall has time to deal with graffiti as a serious concern, but the show never had anyone MAKE that point and it faded as soon as it became about a very urban “case”).
- I have to admit, the acting was a bit all over the map here: the main characters are alright, but some of the bit players (in particular the Albertan tough who was trapped in the bathtub) were distractingly bad.
- There is nothing that annoys me more than stupid cops in shows like this: Burn Notice has always been smart by sticking to stories that are primarily built around cases that cops can’t handle in terms of a lack of evidence or sensitive clients. Here, somehow the police overlooked these Cowboy types cavorting with the sister-in-law in front of the hospital in plain sight – I understand the pilot wants to sell us on the fact that the Doyles are good at their job, but it goes too far to make the police out to be complete and total idiots without making it a point of comedy (like they do on, for example, Psych).