Darkness on the Edge of Dramatic Satire: Showcase’s Cra$h & Burn

When I was on the train home from Montreal, I had with me screeners of the first five episodes of a Canadian show, Showcase’s Cra$h & Burn, that had never particularly been on my radar (primarily because I don’t actually get the channel in question). The reviews had been lukewarm upon its release, to the point where I had not included the show in my drive to watch more Canadian television.

However, watching the show on the train proved to be an interesting experience. If you had told me going in that the show would present itself as part Better Off Ted (Workplace Satire!), part The Wire (Corruption, and Clark Johnson!), and part Six Feet Under (People Die in the Cold Open!), I probably would have raised my eyebrow faster than ever before, but Crash & Burn is an interesting little dramatic experiment which plays with elements from all these shows. It is not as successful as any of them, struggling early on with the weight of having its hand in so many cookie jars, but it gets a lot of points for going for it, and achieves a sense of dramatic weight and purpose around the midpoint of its first season which makes me anxious, at some point in the future, to finish it.

Unfortunately, the period where I was putting my life back together after my 21-hour train ride took the life out of me, so I nearly neglected to write about the show in time for this post to seem, well, timely: the show’s first season finale airs on Thursday, February 18th, at 10pm ET. However, being a heavily serialized drama, I would suggest, if you get Showcase, you could perhaps wait and see if they start repeating episodes (or check them out at Showcase.ca), because in the end I think it’s worth seeing from the beginning.

Cra$h & Burn is a show which offers a cynical view into the world of an Insurance company (Protected Insurance), complete with satirical commercial parodies; Better Off Ted is a show which offers a cynical view into corporate America, complete with satirical commercial parodies.

Cra$h & Burn is also a show that follows individuals and organizations on both sides of the law in the city of Hamilton as they struggle with moral ambiguities and corruption; The Wire is a show that follows individuals and organizations on both sides of the law in the city of Baltimore as they struggle with moral ambiguities and corruption.

Cra$h & Burn is even a show which opens with someone dying or being mortally injured, and the rest of the episode is defined by the consequences and ramifications of that death/injury from an insurance perspective; Six Feet Under, meanwhile, is a show which opens with someone dying, and the rest of the episode is defined by their funeral arrangements.

I think you get the picture: Cra$h & Burn isn’t breaking any new ground with its various comic and dramatic tropes, although if it’s going to crib from some other series in terms of its structure then these are all pretty good places the start. The show’s novelty, and also its early problem, is that it tries to do all of this at the same time, which makes the shifts between comic and dramatic a bit jarring. For example, the presence of satire makes the somewhat over-the-top introduction of Pavel Korkov, a corrupt body shop owner-operator who manipulates insurance claims, seem more broad than I think the show intended considering that the narrative eventually begins to follow Korkov as his own legitimate dramatic character. Sure, all shows start out with one perspective (here struggling rookie insurance agent Jimmy Burn) before branching out, but Volkov’s introduction engages with the satire rather than indicating something deeper that we might be interested in investigating later.

Burn, to use a Wire comparison, is the McNulty figure here: someone who does his job well but never gets a whole lot of credit for it due to a system that doesn’t value his particular way of doing things. The show is the story of how Burn, working a fairly dead end job while trying to start a new life with his fiance, struggles to maintain his morality in a system dehumanizing at best and corrupt at worst, and he goes through the kinds of trials that you would expect (unappreciative superiors, corporate red tape, moral concerns over screwing people over, etc.). He’s the hero with shades of the anti-hero, with a mysterious group home past and a tragedy that seems to haunt him to keep him from seeming too squeaky clean for the universe. The show primarily follows Burn, but it also branches off into the world of Korkov’s insurance scams, and focuses in on Catherine Scott, the in-house attorney at Protected Insurance, who is struggling through a bitter child custody situation with her ex-husband, currently planning to marry his boyfriend.

Those individual stories all feel like they’re a bit rushed, even if all three actors (Luke Kirby, best known in the world of TV for his work in HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me; Steve Bacic, who I conveniently just saw earlier today as Ana’s new fiance on Big Love; and Caroline Cave, who was apparently in Saw VI) give strong performances. The stories are compelling, but they aren’t particularly new, and when the show feels like it’s stepping a bit too far outside its central premise (like when Lucia, Jimmy’s fiance, gets her own story involving her job at a daycare centre) it slows things down. There’s a lot of interesting material to be found in a workplace drama set in an Insurance agency, and the weekly “cases” can often be quite engaging in and of themselves. The best episode of the show I’ve seen was one that took a single event (a cross detaching from the wall at a church and killing the minister and injuring several others) that let it play out, with the characters’ personal lives proving a distraction rather than the purpose of the drama. The show feels more sustainable when it enters into this mode, perhaps less ambitious but at the same time more grounded and (in my personal opinion) engaging.

The show, as I note, is not without problems. I won’t go too far into spoilers, but the show keeps the audience completely in the dark surrounding a fairly major plot development that feels like a bit too much of a bait and switch: the actions onscreen take the show in a fairly dark and ominous direction, and to pull the rug out from under that feels like a bit too broad a move (even if, I’d suspect, it was done so as to provide foreshadowing for later darkness). The show’s combination of satire and gritty drama can at times feel incongruous, so playing with our perception of whether what we’re seeing is true feels a bit dishonest. The show also struggles with tone early on, although the looseness eventually allows them to settle into a pretty solid rhythm by the time I got to the end of my screeners.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of things to like about Cra$h and Burn (which doesn’t include the ridiculous $ in the title, although I’m guessing that’s a legal distinction), with an enjoyable cast and a universe that has potential both in terms of its characters and in terms of its setting. As far as I know, ratings weren’t particularly spectacular, and since this is Showcase’s first ever hour-long series there isn’t really much to compare it to (which means that if Showcase wasn’t happy with its performance, writing it off as a failed experiment is dangerously easy). I’m not sure how the quality keeps up later in the season, and my favourite cast member (Clark Johnson, providing a true Wire flashback considering his role in the fifth season of that series, as Fraud specialist Walker Hearn) apparently disappears after the episodes I watched if I trust IMDB, but the episodes I saw made me want to see more, and that’s the most basic test of all.

Cultural Observations

  • The show is set in Hamilton, which isn’t the most glamourous location in the world, but that totally works to its advantage: while I’ve read interviews, including from Johnson, which have compared it to Baltimore (there’s that Wire connection), I think the show would be pushing itself way too far if it got into any sort of environmental analysis of their location. This is a show driven by the workplace and the characters, and if it tried to go too far into location I think it would implode.
  • The show doesn’t call itself out as Canadian too often, but I quite like the setup at Protected: it was a small insurance company bought out by a larger one based in Denver, which makes it a sort of stepchild with corporate headquarters. If the people in Hamilton had a chip on their shoulder about it, I think it would get tired, but they have a lot of fun at Denver’s expense, which keeps it from seeming too heavy-handed on the “American overlords don’t understand Canada” front.
  • Creator Malcolm MacRury, who is most often listed as “formerly of Deadwood” for the credibility that rightfully earns him, also brought us mini-series ZOS: Zone of Separation. There’s a word document floating around where I started reviewing the first part of that mini-series, which aired on The Movie Network a little over a year ago, which I watched on a plane to Montreal (clearly, MacRury’s shows are only to be consumed on trips to and from that fair city) but wasn’t able to finish since my plane on the way home didn’t have fancy video screens due to a delay. The show, which follows U.N. Peacekeepers, was compelling of what I saw of it, and I’m looking forward to eventually getting to it in the future as well.
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6 Comments

Filed under Cra$h & Burn

6 responses to “Darkness on the Edge of Dramatic Satire: Showcase’s Cra$h & Burn

  1. Cra$h & Burn airs three times on Sunday and twice on Thursday. Weirdly, and this comes from Penny McDonald of Whizbang Films, the show does best in the Sunday, 7:00 PM timeslot. I think C&B will be renewed for another season, but it’s hard to read the show’s signs.

    I’ve been recording Cra$h & Burn (the $ irks me, too) but not watching it, even though I’ve meant to. I did see the season finale, which is much better than its premiere. The show isn’t as contrived when it goes for straight drama, as opposed to the premiere’s bet-hedging between satire and drama.

    I think C&B is learning how to better work its elements into a tight, coherent narrative. The show started off rather poorly, but it’s improved. C&B might take a while to really get going.

  2. malcolm macrury

    Not so fast please — the Season One finale airs this Thursday at 10 on Showcase. It’s called “Til Death”.

    • You are most correct, sir! That was a rather egregious misread on my part, albeit one which makes this post timelier than I had first imagined. The post has been edited to reflect as such.

  3. Pingback: TV, eh? » Review: Cra$h & Burn

  4. Shawn Park

    This is a great show….well written. Keep it intelligent and believable, and you’ll have great success. All the best.

  5. robert

    I love this show. The acting in my opinion, is great from the whole cast. The story lines are interesting and beleivable, with just enough intrigue to keep you guessing. It’s presented on Showcase now and I hope they renew. again. Im a Hamiltonian and wish more people from this area viewed this show as its the first series for us, filmed in Hamilton, as far as I can remember.

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