Spies, Television

TV: Intelligence

August 31, 2011

And now, from the Department of TV Designed Specifically for Chris East, comes the Canadian series Intelligence (2005-2007), a subdued, smart, intrigue-fueled drama set in Vancouver, British Columbia.  I was lured to this one by an article describing it as “the Canadian Wire,” which for me is lofty praise indeed.  While I don’t think it quite matches The Wire’s level of thematic ambition or its production quality, I think the comparison is legitimate.  Intelligence possesses similar characteristics:  rolling rhythms, moody ambience, a cast of characters connected in a tangled skein of allegiances, ambitions, and motives.  And like The Wire, it’s interested in institutions, how they intersect and act on each other — here, the crime world meets law enforcement meets spydom, woven together with Machiavellian complexity.  I suspect its dark turns, mumbly dialogue, and slow-burning intrigue may not be flashy enough for many viewers.   But I found it totally addictive and highly satisfying, with a consistent vision delivered by series creator Chris Haddock, who scripts every episode.

On the surface, a description of the initial world of Intelligence seems black and white.  In one corner you have the traditional good guys, represented by the hard-nosed, ambitious chief of the Organized Crime Unit, Mary Spalding (Klea Scott, whom some of you might remember from season three of Millenium).  Spalding is the uber-professional, a tough and competent woman with designs on promotion.  Her work in the OCU has made her a prime candidate to run the Asia-Pacific division of the nascent Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS).  To that end, she’s been developing an effective network of street informants to impress the bigwigs in Ottawa, providing a steady flow of solid intelligence from Canada’s west coast.

In the other corner are the traditional bad guys, centered around Jimmy Reardon (Ian Tracey), a cool-headed dealmaker with legitimate business interests in shipping, trucking, and lumber.  But these industries serve as a front for his illegal cash cows:  marijuana distribution and international smuggling.  Reardon has his share of personal headaches:  namely, reining in his loose cannon brother Mike (Bernie Coulson) and navigating a messy split with his coke fiend ex-wife Francine (Camille Sullivan).  But for the most part, Reardon – who breezes along calmly through every storm, delivering his lines like a media-savvy hockey player giving interviews between periods – is a unifying force, with a peaceful, live-and-let-live attitude and shrewd business instincts.  As anti-heroes go, he’s more Stringer Bell than Tony Soprano.

It doesn’t take long before this simple cops-and-robbers dichotomy gets complicated, however.  When a briefcase full of confidential OCU documents falls into Reardon’s lap, he finds himself in a powerful negotiating position with Spalding – and thus begins the clandestine relationship at the heart of the show.  What starts as a cagey negotiation becomes, more or less, a full-blown partnership between two powerful figures on opposite sides of a divide.   Throughout the series, Spalding and Reardon trade favors and information as circumstances dictate, to improve both their personal situations and those of their organizations.  And along the way, they develop respect for each other, if not also a grudging loyalty.

And they need it, in light of the external threats they face.  Spalding is up to her neck in bald white guys from the Old Boys’ Network, maneuvering to keep her out of power – among them her own cynical deputy, Ted Altman (Matt Frewer of Max Hedroom fame), a depressed and cadaverous old-timer whose bitter scheming gets him into bed with all sorts of shady figures.  Meanwhile her network, sparked by top grade informants like Reardon and escort service maven Katarina (Ona Grauer), lead her to detect deep cover penetrations of CSIS which have her constantly second-guessing her own colleagues.  Reardon, meanwhile, has his hands full keeping rival kingpin Dante Ribiso (Fulvio Cicere) in check, plus his border-crossing drug runs have run him afoul of the DEA, and his position as Spalding’s prize source have painted a target on his head for her many enemies.  And that’s just a small sample of the challenges they face, in a world where alliances constantly shift and mutate as new information comes to light and characters get caught in the switches.  Keeping track of it all is tough sledding, and while at times it starts to feel out of hand — scheming for scheming’s sake, perhaps — it ultimately ties together.

While the show clearly has an upper level strategy, for me a lot of the fun is at the tactical level.  Intelligence’s world is detailed and convincing, and full of clever, engaging tradecraft, from the pros and the criminals alike.  For the OCU, it’s embodied best by Inspector Martin Kiniski (Eugene Lipinski), a playfully laconic operator who becomes Spalding’s right hand man and thoughtful sounding board.  Not without his callous moments, Kiniski is one of the more likeable characters on the show, clearly taking great joy in his work, ultimately with the best interests of his country at heart.  His opposite number on Reardon’s team is Bob Tremblay (Darcy Laurie), a loyal watchdog with a quick eye, who deftly coordinates security and countersurveillance.  These two fearlessly execute the street-level operations that enable their bosses to keep the big picture in focus. Watching them operate is a kick.

Season one is the stronger of the two, I think, a low-key, slow-building mystery that escalates to compelling crisis points late in the run.  Season one’s endgame is where the criminal family — Reardon, Mike, Bob, Reardon’s business partner Ronnie Delmonico (John Cassini), Ronnie’s girlfriend Sweet (Alana Husband) — come together against a stacked deck, and start to appear much more sympathetic than the authorities trying to take them down.  Season two, also strong, stumbles a bit out of the gates but recovers quickly to realize the show’s greater vision.  On both sides of the divide, individuals are caught in the institutional gears, the common people weighted down by the systems ostensibly designed to protect them.  And as the criminal world gradually unifies under Reardon’s level-headed guidance, the “legal” authorities grow increasingly divisive and toxic.  One comes away from the series respecting Reardon, Spalding, and their respective created families much more than the broader forces of money at work, constantly bending the laws to their own rapacious ends.

It’s an impressive juggling act, filled with clever switches and turns, its bleak rogue’s gallery growing gradually more sympathetic as the story advances.  Diehard American patriots may find themselves upset by how villainous the U.S. comes across,  but it strikes me as mostly fair criticism, a strong Canadian reaction to a volatile political climate between neighbors.  And that tension is also also key to the story substance, which is forward-looking in its consideration of imminent challenges facing North America in the coming century.

Intelligence was a major success for me, then:  total wheelhouse stuff.  It’s probably not a broad appeal show — it can be too somber, too contrived, perhaps too scattered at times.  But it’s the kind of niche viewing that’s liable to resonate strongly with certain folks.  Fans of The Wire, The Sopranos, Rubicon, and Terriers should be lining up for it, I think.  It’s definitely gained a place on my list of great shows that were canceled too soon.

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  • Jon Rosenthal August 31, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I can’t believe you watched this. That makes two of us I know of. Have you seen any of the Aussie series Underbelly? I’ve seen the prequel/sequel series (Both are prequels done after the main show>) Good Fun.

    • Chris East August 31, 2011 at 11:33 pm

      You can’t believe I watched a spy show? Hi, Jon, allow me to introduce myself… 😀 Did you like it?

      Haven’t even heard of Underbelly, but I’ll look into it. (A couple months ago I was saying the same thing about Intelligence…)

      • Jon Rosenthal September 1, 2011 at 2:43 pm

        I guess I always thought of it more as a cops and robbers…