If you watched the Friday Film this week (and there’s no reason you shouldn’t dammit!) then you might have noticed a couple of gags about Canadian television. As a little background to the story, I was doing some Stand Up gigs over in Alberta some years ago and so I had found myself regularly searching my brain for Anglo-Canadian topics to talk about. There was plenty of mileage to be gained from “aren’t American’s dumb” gags but what I really wanted to find was something positive that our nations shared rather than just taking cheap pops at the US. I was during one of these gigs that I, on a whim, decided to have a rant about the absurdities of the Canadian made, Due South. The second I made reference to the unforgettable Benton Fraser and his mythical ability to track serial killers by licking crap he found on the road, the room lit up with a kind of childlike amazement. It was like I’d taken the lid off an old box and revealed to the audience some long lost treasure that they’d forgotten they ever owned and for a moment we all just sat and giggled at the memory of this rather silly TV show.
So what is Due South? Well if you’ve not seen it before I’ll give you the basics, however I can pretty much guarantee that your eyebrow will go up at least three times during the next paragraph.
Due South was a Canadian made police comedy-drama that ran for 67 glorious episodes between 1994 and 1999. It told the story of a Canadian Mountie by the name of Benton Fraser, who is forced to move to Chicago after uncovering an environmental corruption scandal in his homeland. Once there he teams up with a straight talking CPD detective named Ray Vecchio and proceeds to solve crimes aided by a deaf wolf called Diefenbaker (who adopted Fraser after saving his life) and the slightly mad ghost of his murdered father…who’s also a Mountie. Still with me? Good. Fraser has no idea of how American culture works, but he does have the aforementioned ability to obtain stupid amounts of information about a case by licking dung he finds at crime scenes – he doesn’t have any powers, apparently all Mounties can do that. The parts of Fraser and Ray were played by Paul Gross and David Maraciano respectively, except for the latter two seasons in which Maraciano is replaced by an actor named Callum Keith Rennie, the backstory being that Ray has gone undercover and so a new person has joined the force in order to impersonate him so that the mob don’t get suspicious, thus everyone has to refer to him as Ray even though he’s clearly not Ray. Still with me now? I’m not sure even I am to be honest!
The late Leslie Nielsen appeared in several episodes as legendary Mountie, Buck Frobisher.
Yeah, it was utterly bonkers, but that was the point. It was packaged as a police drama and played totally straight, but make no mistake, Due South was a comedy at heart. A deadpan love letter to the way Americans and Canadians see one another. As well as an exercise in cross border relations, the show was also a masterclass in the theatre of the absurd. Writer/Creator Paul Higgis (who went on to write Million Dollar Baby, Crash and Casino Royale) would take the most unimaginably outrageous storylines and then blast them off into the ether to see if the audience would go along for the ride – in one episode Fraser tracks down a suspect by sniffing the breath of a passing rat in order to determine the brand of barbecued ribs it had been eating! It’s an exercise in silliness which, in my opinion, is only equalled by Batman (that’s the Adam West version in case you’re in any doubt…unless Chris Nolan is even more crafty a writer than I thought).
The crazy thing is that among all this, the show still works as a police drama. The cases are interesting, the characters compelling and the relationships believable. It’s just great TV writing and something that I, even now, occasionally throw on if I’m looking for some inspiration (I have in the past described Moon as a love letter to Due South, it’s not strictly true but it’s not entirely untrue either).
Sadly the American audience never really agreed and despite the show being a hit in the UK and Canada, it was cancelled after 4 series. The DVDs can be a bit of a pain to get hold of, but if you can track them down then I highly recommend it. If nothing else it’ll give you an insight into our work.
Now get on your horse and RIDE!