To say that Chris Haddock’s Canadian TV series Intelligence is (or, as is now the case, was) as good as any American crime show is unfair to Haddock. It’s better, smarter, more sophisticated than its American counterparts, more clever in its tangle of narratives and less showy in a visual style. Set in Vancouver, B.C., a central hub for shipping between Canada, the U.S., Asia, and points beyond and the major western border crossing between the U.S. and Canada (as well as the home of Haddock’s previous series, Da Vinci’s Inquest), Intelligence is a domestic espionage show about the ground work of intelligence agents after the kind of international crime that Jack Bauer is too busy to bother with: gun running, drug smuggling, human trafficking. It’s also about the workings of local crime with international reach, in particular low-key Vancouver crime boss and marijuana smuggler Jimmy Reardon (Ian Tracey, of Da Vinci’s Inquest), who plays informant for the ambitious head of the Organized Crime Unit, Mary Spaulding (Klea Scott, from the third season of Millennium and a terrific Portia in a local Seattle production of The Merchant of Venice I had the pleasure of seeing a few weeks ago) in a quid pro quo exchange of information.
Jimmy steers clear of hard drugs and not just for moral reasons; he doesn’t like the increased scrutiny from local and national law enforcement and he really doesn’t like the violence it brings. So ratting out the coke and meth dealers is a no brainer for him and the bottom line of his business. Mary, meanwhile, is making a play to step up to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and discovers more intrigue inside the office than on the streets: what she thinks is a mere leak turns out to be a sieve pouring out information to the US, China, Russia, and who knows where else.
At stake is 1) the tenuous balance of criminal power that Jimmy keeps in check (which in turn keeps Vancouver streets relatively free of drug gang violence), and 2) government agencies filled with agents and political players more beholden to American agencies and corporations than their own country. The superb writing keeps it grounded in a reality where officials wait on information to work its way through the chain of command and agents and smugglers survive without the kinds of high-tech toys and glamorous weapons systems available to their counterparts on American TV. The opening episode of the second season finds Jimmy making a getaway from a trap set by the American DEA, which has lured him to Seattle for reasons that don’t really fit into the category of legitimate agency business. His escape takes the entire episode, which pieces together each leg of his run for the border with nothing but cell phones and GPS devices bought at local electronics stores. This is a model of smart people using practical technology, manpower and patience to get a person over the border, and it’s all done in the world that we live in, not some slick espionage fantasy where computers are hacked in seconds flat and armed response teams are just minutes away from every possible engagement.
There’s also a fascinating evolution of characters through the two seasons. Jimmy’s screw-up brother Michael (Bernie Coulson, who bears a slight resemblance to Chris Penn) actually mans up in the course of the first season and proves to have real native intelligence when he improvises a distraction to avert a minor crisis during Jimmy’s escape. Arrogant Organized Crime Unit Detective Ted Altman (Matt Frewer) is a rogue with his own agenda, happily conspiring with the CIA to undercut Mary until it blows up in his face, but undergoes a dynamic and completely believable transformation when Mary, promoted to the head of CSIS Asia Pacific Region, personally picks Altman to take her old job. He’s suspicious of the gesture and even more taken aback by the way she considers his reports, follows his advice and backs up his plays (something his American contacts never did). Suddenly part of a real team with a real leader, he returns the respect with loyalty and good work. The show doesn’t make a big deal of it and leaves it to the subtle but strong shifts in Frewer’s performance to tell the story of the transformation. It’s his best, most nuanced performance in years, maybe ever.
But perhaps what I appreciate most is the relationship between the Canada and the U.S. as seen from the Canadian perspective. The United States makes a show of egalitarianism and partnership, but its every action is about profit and economic control: politically (the U.S. has moles all over CSIS and has bribed politicians in every level of government), privately (the machinations of an American-owned multinational has very troubling ties to American intelligence) and criminally (just as Mary uncovers the corporate conspiracy, Jimmy finds American drug gangs moving over the border and trying to muscle into the Vancouver street business). The series was cancelled before these storylines could be fully played out, but Haddock and his collaborators had already laid in persuasive suggestions that all of these powers were intertwined at some level, and they all shared a common purpose. CSIS was a small fish taking on the sharks in the intelligence community, but it was taking them on and making headway with a mixture of tenacity, a show of international cooperation and good luck. If it wasn’t completely convincing, it made for a nice underdog story in a completely convincing portrait of Canada’s international position in world politics and economics.
Intelligence ran for two seasons on Canadian TV, a mere 25 episodes that came to an end at the end of 2007. It won a handful of Canadian awards, and deservedly so. Acorn brought the series stateside in a pair of DVD box sets and it’s gripping viewing thanks to sharp writing that transforms what could be the mundane details of communication and diplomacy in both the streets and the political arena into a complex web of feints and threats and power plays. It’s more The Wire than 24, admittedly not as ambitious or sprawling or dense with characters and stories, but just as methodical and full of shades of gray and levels of compromise on both sides of the law. And at the heart of it all is the tricky symbiotic relationship between Jimmy and Mary.