To call intelligence, the new spy series from Da Vinci's Inquest creator Chris Haddock, the best Canadian drama on TV is damning it with faint praise, since the competition comes from the likes of The O.C.-knockoff Whistler.
The first episode opens like Danger Bay. A single-engine seaplane skims the coastline, then gently touches down amid a flotilla of felled redwoods before banking sharply into BC's bud-fuelled underbelly: dope smugglers, money launderers, outlaw bikers and the cops who chase them.
"It's a murky world where the good guys are bad, the bad guys are good and nobody's on the level," says Haddock. A biker type with long grey hair and a goatee, he looks like he knows what he's talking about.
A high-stakes, high-tech cat-and-mouse game, Intelligence more closely resembles HBO's The Wire or BBC's MI-5 (aka Spooks) - or to go back a few years, Wiseguy - than any of the CSI-style forensic porn currently dominating the dial.
That alone is reason enough to start drawing the chalk outline. TV is not kind to smart programming, and Intelligence, in which cops and crooks keep busy outsmarting each other, may be in danger of outsmarting its audience.
"It's a risk, sure," says Ian Tracey, who stars as smuggler-turned-informant Jimmy Reardon. "But it's more important that you don't explain everything, that you leave holes so the audience can bring their own interpretations and figure things out for themselves."
Having already earned a fistful of Gemini noms for the two-hour series pilot, which aired last spring, Intelligence has been given a 13-episode run on CBC. If it dies before the second season, this will be grave news for the Canadian hour-long drama, on life support since 1999, when private broadcasters pressured the CRTC to eliminate spending requirements and expand the definition of Canadian priority programming to include the likes of ET Canada.
In the seven years since, broadcasters have gone from spending 27 per cent of ad revenue on American imports to an all-time high of 35 per cent, while Canadian drama's share of the pie has dropped from 5.1 to 3.2 per cent - this as total ad revenues have risen by almost 15 per cent.
"Prior to that decision there were 12 Canadian-made hour-long dramas on TV. Within two years that number dropped to four, and it's not getting any better," says Stephen Waddell, national executive director of ACTRA, which represents 21,000 actors across the country.
The CRTC has scheduled a review of its policies at a public hearing this fall, and ACTRA, along with the Coalition of Canadian Audio-visual Unions and the Writers Guild of Canada, is demanding that spending requirements be reinstated, with 7 per cent of ad revenue dedicated to homegrown dramas.
Of course, when an hour of Canadian drama costs upward of $1.5 million to produce and an hour of a hit U.S. drama like 24 or Lost costs just 10 per cent of the episode's total budget to license (somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000), it's easy to see why broadcasters are reluctant to sink more money into producing their own shows.
"We're the only country in the world that allows so much of our broadcasting to be given away to foreign programs," says Waddell. "Canadian dramas have been marginalized - they're broadcast on weekends, they're shifted all over the schedule, moved to make room for U.S. shows. We're not asking for all Canadian programming all the time, just two hours per week of Canadian dramatic content per broadcaster."
As for Intelligence, Haddock is confident it'll find an audience, even without the huge marketing campaign U.S. shows have.
"When I did The Handler (his failed CBS cop drama with Joe Pantoliano), they spent almost $40 million promoting it. Here you don't get a fraction of that," Haddock says.
"The battle is fiercer than ever. Intelligence uses the smuggler as the central metaphor for all these other things I want to explore, and we have to find a way to smuggle our product - Canadian TV shows, Canadian music, Canadian culture - out into the public."
Intelligence airs Tuesdays at 9 pm on CBC.
What to watch this week
Saturday, October 7
Space battles, sexy robots, suicide bombers as metaphor for the Middle East. Very cool.
9 pm on Space
Monday, October 9
More fun than its X-Men premise suggests.
9 pm on NBC and Global
Tuesday, October 10
The Lens Doc series season debut is irreverent workplace exposé Bosses.
10 pm on CBC Newsworld