Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, December 09, 2007
      ( 12/09/2007 08:49:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"WHAT'S IT GONNA TAKE TO REALLY INSULT YOU THEN?" Dominic Da Vinci, the Vancouver coroner who regularly gets to take umbrage over the insanity of the Canadian legal system, is an agreeably tarnished figure. Divorced, a Friend of Bill W., prone to speaking his mind with scant regard for office or departmental politics, he's a familiar enough teevee type, but he has two things setting him apart from the other lone wolves out there. One, he's based on a real-life figure, Canadian chief coroner turned Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell; two, as played by actor Nicholas Campbell, he's distinct and likeable to keep from coming across as either a blowhard (c.f Robbie Coltrane's Cracker) or a self-righteous stick a la Horatio Cane.

First time we meet Dom, he's being let into his former home by his teenaged daughter (a pre-Firefly Jewel Staite), after his ex-wife Patricia (Gwyneth Walsh) has changed the locks on the doors. Da Vinci's occasionally testy relationship with his ex- is complicated by the fact that she works as pathologist in the same building and is also dating his boss, chief coroner James Flynn (Robert Wisden), on the side. It's enough to drive a man to drink, and in the series' first episode, recovering alcoholic Da Vinci pointedly steps off the wagon, an act that will have serious repercussions ten episodes later when our hero wakes from a drunken binge, unsure if he's been involved in a hit-and-run.

A popular Canadian tele-drama Da Vinci's Inquest had a seven season run before morphing into the shorter running Da Vinci's City Hall; to American viewers, the series found a sporadic audience in syndication before settling on the current home of Well-Wrought Canadian Television, super-station WGN. To date, two of its thirteen-episode seasons have been released by Acorn Media on DVD, which specializes in sets devoted to popular British and Canadian series. The season one set from 1968 is fairly no-frills (thirteen episodes, a trailer for the show and a cast filmography) but it provides a solid introduction to all the players in this well-made procedural drama. Soon as I finished it, I was ready to move onto season two - and not just because the holiday season has turned so much regular American television into rerun fodder. Inquest is plenty compelling on its own right.

Though billed on the Acorn set's slipcase as a "mystery" series, DVI is as much a social drama as it is a police procedural: at least half of the episodes in the first season focus on issues more (mercy killing, misuse of political power, mistreatment of the elderly, teen risk-taking) than unexpected deaths. If some of these offerings approach Quincy M.E. preachiness, the series' modern approach to grown-up characterization makes it all more palatable. We know, for instance, that Da Vinci's ongoing crusade to lower the numbers of drug-related overdoses in Vancouver (a matter that also preoccupied his real-life counterpart) has its roots in his earlier experiences as a drug cop and as a recovering alcohol abuser. When he loses his cool over governmental inclination to ignore the damning stats, it's more than just some scriptwriter ranting about his pet bugaboo.

Still, to my blood-thirsty American eyes, the best episodes are the ones that blend socio/political commentary with a good grisly set of murders. In the two-part season finale, for instance, our hero gets involved in a manhunt for a creepy married duo who've been getting away with a series of murders and abductions by moving from country to country, relying on the jurisdictional borders to keep anyone from catching onto what we've been doing. The storyline devotes as much time to negotiations and manipulations between U.S. and Canadian law enforcement as it does the actual procedural details. But because we also see the couple's latest victim (Corner Gas's Gabrielle Miller in a very different role) as she's captured and attempts to escape, it adds urgency to our hero's attempts at pushing through the bureaucracy.

Dom isn't the only one to knock against the system, of course. Wife Patricia also has her battles, in one case fighting to reopen the suspicious death of a man suspected of killing prostitutes with intentional alcohol overdoses. Enmeshed in the middle of this case is homicide detective Leo Shannon (familiar character actor Donnelly Rhodes, playing the kind of grizzled vet Andy Sipowicz would recognize as kin), who may have had a hand in encouraging some back alley justice. In a second subplot that weaves in and out of the first season, the brother of Leo's newbie partner Mick Leary (Ian Tracey) arrives in Vancouver to connect with the city drug trade; though this particular plotline peters out in the season finale, it does provide a few sharp bits of criminal characterization before we get there.

Unlike most American procedural dramas, the tone in DVI is frequently more quizzical than authoritative. It is, series creator Chris Haddock the rest of his writers seem to be saying, the nature of inquests to ask questions, but that doesn't always mean satisfactory answers will come of it. But perhaps that "mystery" label on the back of the DVD box was wholly apt after all.
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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