“The Return of the Grievous Angel”
January 13th, 2010
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of speaking with Angela Antle of the Newfoundland and Labradour Weekend Arts Magazine on CBC Radio One in order to offer some mainland perspective on CBC’s new series, Republic of Doyle. My review of the show was quite critical, although Angela was more interested in my reading of the show’s cultural depiction of the province as opposed to my frustration with its formulaic 80s throwback structure. You can download the interview in podcast episode form at this link (Opens in iTunes), and hear how I spent about fifteen minutes discussing my way around a central question: what kind of cultural statement does a show make when it proves that St. John’s is just as capable of Toronto of housing a generic procedural private investigation series?
My argument is that it isn’t a cultural statement at all. I’ve written thesis chapters on how Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie can be read as cultural statements in regards to the position of both rural communities and Muslim populations within Canada’s national identity, and this is achieved through stories that challenge and question stereotypes. The problem with Republic of Doyle is that it has no such cultural statement: while I don’t think the show needs to scream Newfoundland every episode, right now it’s not actually saying anything at all.
While I would argue that part of the reason for this shallow representation of place is inherent in the show’s genre, I think the show’s execution is only exacerbating these concerns. By focusing on, and convoluting, the show’s procedural structure, the characters aren’t coming into focus, and whatever chance the show has to actually say anything substantial about St. John’s, Newfoundland, or even Canada as a whole remains absent beyond a Great Big Sea theme song and some pretty scenery.
And that’s not a cultural statement. Or, speaking more critically, a statement at all.
Now, procedurals are not exactly fantastic at representing place. In most cases, they take advantage of existing reputations about particular locations: CSI doesn’t do much to actually show Las Vegas, so much as taking advantage of its various stereotypes for the sake of telling compelling crime stories. However, at the same time, place is one of the distinguishing factors in crime procedurals, whether it be between different shows in the same franchise (Law & Order is the only such franchise to do without this diversity, and it’s even considering Los Angeles for its next version) or different franchises entirely. And we can often see comparisons, albeit shallow ones, between CSI: Miami and Miami’s sunny, glossy culture, and between CSI: New York and New York’s grittiness – the shows seem suited to their locations not just in terms of the type of characters or the physical locations, but in the types of stories they tell.
So while the procedural setting might not be built to reveal complex cultural details of Newfoundland, it is at least built to reflect its setting, but I don’t see any of that with Republic of Doyle. I don’t entirely know where to start on what made “The Return of the Grievous Angel” a bit of a bore, but we can start with the procedural case to discover the show’s overall problems. Jake and Malachy are approached by a girl to find her long lost father, and when they find him she gives them a cheque, which bounces. They discover she stole someone’s identity, and that her boyfriend is in St. John’s looking for her. Her body then shows up in a car, at which point they suspect the boyfriend and the father, except that it turns out the boyfriend is her father and the father is her real father’s former partner in crime who was supposed to take care of the father’s family while said father was serving prison time for the heist they both pulled off twenty-five years ago. By the time we learned that it was the fake father’s real son who did the girl in, after she threatened to take away his father and his life in a fancy suburban dreamland where his skateboard is his only rebellion, I have one main question: why do we care?
If it felt as if the case allowed us to see a different side of Jake, or if the case had given us a view into new parts of St. John’s or Newfoundland culture, then I could say that the sheer complexity of it might have made sense. As it was, however, the case was more complex than it needed to be, and actually too complex for the episode to feel the least bit balanced. I don’t know who exactly told Allan Hawco that what defines procedural shows are twists and turns, but I’d much rather see the show present one simple case which hits home a particular thematic or cultural point of view as opposed to one which is only noteworthy in feeling like an entirely different show piled into one episode. This story was every procedural cliche crammed into a single episode, and the few times it felt like it had time to breathe it was still moving very slowly (or very oddly) in getting its characters established. And the case could have happened in any location, and felt only tangentially related to Newfoundland or even Canada for that matter.
The introduction of Des as part of the gang was quite effective, but it seems like it happened simultaneously too suddenly (we never got to see the job get pitched, for example) and too slowly (since I’d rather have seen the show spent its pilot getting the whole team together and then letting them loose this week). And I would have rather seen more of his integration with the team than with Jake nonsensically hooking up with his wife even with the existence of a peace bond between them, a story that has yet to click: we’ve, again, seen too little to make it an actual storyline, so what time we do spend with it seems like too much when the deeper meaning behind their relationship has yet to be properly explained. And I’m still waiting to find out why Tinny is living with her grandfather, and not in a good way – there’s a difference between mystery and not explaining things, and the show leans heavily on the latter.
I’ve got some other nitpicks too, like how such a small-time private eye company has such advanced technology, but at the end of the day I don’t yet know what the show is about. We needed some sort of struggle, whether it’s a Private Eye company overrun by its case load (necessitating an assistant) or Jake only taking the job to help out his father after his other son, who used to be the other P.I., left or died under mysterious circumstances; those are just two ways where it would feel like the show was actually going somewhere, that we’re actually seeing characters on some sort of journey. I understand that not every procedural works that way, don’t get me wrong, but the show’s actual procedural structure is so reductive that it needs something else to give it some life. And since the show seems unwilling to fully embrace its setting beyond a surface level, they’re going to have to find that somewhere else, and…I’m not sure it’s there.
- The show really has to cool it with the chase scenes: if that’s its go-to move, it’s not actually as visually interesting as they think it is.
- The show’s closest thing to a cultural reference this week was the mention of Mount Pearl, which to be fair is probably the first time Mount Pearl has been mentioned on national television (albeit it in a derogatory fashion, which is actually how I’ve heard people refer to it in real life – sorry, Mount Pearlians).
- I refuse to believe that Jake would be able to go back to Nikki’s apartment, almost have sex with her, and then get back to the bar without someone stealing his beer. I know it’s a small city, but just no.
- The extended discussion of “panties” was “painful.”
- I have never in my entire life heard someone refer to Canadian currency as “brown ones” (Our $100 bills are brown, for the strange non-Canadians reading this far into the review), so I’m wondering where the logic came for that one.
- For a while I thought I was the only person looking at the show critically in this country, but Cameron Archer backs me up with some good analysis of the pilot’s struggles at URBMN.