Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Intelligence offers smart, sexy entertainment

CBC is facing a new television season without coroner-turned-mayor Dominic Da Vinci for the first time in eight years – but not without the mind behind Da Vinci's Inquest and Da Vinci's City Hall. Intelligence, the new series from creator, writer, and executive producer Chris Haddock, debuts Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 9 p.m., following the Sept. 26 rebroadcast of last year's two-hour movie.

Despite dipping into the crime genre again, Intelligence is miles away from Da Vinci in tone and subject matter, with a focus on espionage and the drug-running underworld. But it's not just spies versus gangsters, it's also spy versus spy, and the criminals are occasionally more honourable than the agents trying to bust them. Both spies and spied-upon live in a shadowy world, figuratively and literally in the stylishly shot series.

Perched on stools in the downtown Vancouver strip club that doubles as the show's fictional Chickadee club, Haddock and I chatted in surroundings that, under the bright TV lighting, were almost disappointingly unseedy in person, but look suitably gritty onscreen.

"I'm trying to borrow from the noir style, because I think we're in similar kinds of times as when noir was born, post-WWII when the world was anxious and a little bit cynical about the experience of world war, and still anxious from the bomb," Haddock explained while keeping a sharp eye on the on-set action. "We're starting to hear conversations about the bomb again, and there's so much war, and so much anxiety and uncertainty in people's lives. I think it's psychologically similar."

Recently nominated for five Gemini Awards, the Intelligence movie set up the intertwining stories and rich characterizations, particularly of the two leads, whom Haddock refers to as antiheroes. "There's good in the bad guys and bad in the good guys," he said. "And I think that's true to the nature of humanity. I think we're also in times where people are looking for the kind of heroes that are a little less certain in their moral decisions."

"I think when you can clearly identify with the adventures of the heroes and the antiheroes, you can really have a good time, and that's entertainment. So I'm mixing it up. There's times when you can sign on completely with the adventure, and there's other times when you think, 'wow, would I do that?'"

Played winningly by Ian Tracey (Da Vinci's Inquest, Milgaard), crime boss Jimmy Reardon is "a good bad guy," a devoted father who struggles with the violence and deceit of his criminal activities. He's fiercely protective of his family, which is both his most endearing quality and his biggest vulnerability.

"He plays this hard guy to perfection, but he's also got a lot of empathy, so he's really easy for people to identify with, that essential good nature of him," Haddock said of his charismatic leading man.

He was similarly full of praise for Klea Scott (Brooklyn South, Millennium) as spy master Mary Spalding. "I was looking for somebody who could really represent the struggle it is for a woman of colour to work in a bureaucracy and rise to the top and not be held to a lower level of competence, and really evolve into a leader."

The head of Vancouver's Organized Crime Unit, she is vying for a promotion to CSIS, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service. She'd landed Reardon as her prized informant by the end of the Intelligence movie.

The series will explore that precarious relationship, as Reardon uses the information she feeds him to his advantage, and Spalding tries to balance her need for Reardon's cooperation with the possibility of giving him too much power.

Despite the intricate plots and numerous supporting characters, Haddock isn't worried about losing an audience who might not want to make the commitment to a serialized show. "People will watch it for the characters, and the plots are not the first and foremost and only thing about the show," he said. "I made a conscious decision to write it in a certain style so it's more about the characters and their lives than it is about the specific details of the plot. But it does have a taste of the procedural in it, because we're talking about intelligence and the criminal world."

It's meaty subject matter, and particularly relevant in a country whose intelligence activities are regularly questioned in the media. Though he's not aiming to take storylines from yesterday's headlines, he said "we're writing parallel to events that are in the public consciousness."

Intelligence is the culmination of years of research based on Haddock's interest in the world of intelligence, "both as a genre of drama and also because of my personal interest in the daily events of the intelligence in the world abroad."

"I've done a great deal of research on my own but I also have a very good advisor, who's run intelligence operations and has done that kind of large-scale police work," Haddock continued. "He's able to tell me the legal ramifications and the practical ramifications and the overall dramatic reasonableness."

A series centred partly around a sympathetic, compelling drug runner might seem contentious, but Haddock says CBC and everyone involved have embraced the material. "They're all quite excited, because it seems to be so contemporary, and it seems to be unique, and it seems to come out of a true place," he said, while acknowledging that "there's a certain taboo about this. It's been prohibited to talk about drugs on television for a while."

Intelligence may not be completely PC – thank goodness – but it's very BC, representing a darker side of the province than its usual granola-crunching reputation. Personally, I moved to Vancouver because I fell in love with the pretty surroundings and casual but vibrant city. Haddock has a slightly different take. He calls the home of BC Bud, of the gritty streets of Intelligence, "a far-flung outpost, so people hide out here, do things in a clandestine manner here. It's just one of those overlooked spots where there's a lot of action."

Pointing to the area's history of involvement in liquor and now drug smuggling, Haddock has provided Reardon's family with that same history. A third-generation shipping magnate and smuggler, "Jimmy's carrying on the family tradition, both the good and the bad."

Also the creator of the short-lived CBS series The Handler, Haddock is known for crafting thoughtful entertainment. "I'm not interested in making critically acclaimed failures. What's the point in that?"

What's on screen is anything but formulaic or contrived, but Haddock's talents include the ability to consider the commercial potential of his show without compromising his vision. Attractive leads? Check. Multiple genres for maximum flexibility and added interest? Check. Appeal to a wide range of demographics? Check. Engaging the audience is his primary concern, but he does it by appealing to an audience's brains and hearts, by carefully pacing his plots, and by adding edginess and sex appeal.

"I feel this is adult material that I'm engaged with that people will find satisfying," he said. "It's that kind of espionage/thriller sensibility that we used to get in movies all the time, but now the movies are going for a much younger demographic, and finding adult material is harder. Television is where it's going to be at."

Despite Haddock's past successes and instincts for hooking an audience, he's painfully aware that nothing is ever certain in television, especially Canadian television. "You have to do whatever you can to draw the viewers in," he added. "It's a really, really tough landscape out there to attract audiences to shows, especially new shows."

Thanks to the Gemini-nominated movie, the show can already boast critical acclaim. Based on the quality of that movie, it should blow the plethora of generic crime shows out of the water, as a compellingly character-driven show incorporating intricate, intelligent plots. It just remains to be seen if audiences get wise to the appeal of Intelligence.

For more of my conversation with Chris Haddock, see the Q&A.