Due South: Pilot


Due South

All things must change.

I’ve been ploughing through shorter-run series in this slot for a while, culminating in the emotional rigours of Boys from the Blackstuff. Though I’ve still a couple of other series awaiting a re-run, I felt the need for something lighter, and something a bit more substatial, I think as a direct consequence.

Back in the Nineties – and that surprises me because my memory places me watching it in the Noughties – I used to love watching the Canadian/American fish-out-of-water comedy drama Due South, devised by Paul Haggis and starring Paul Gross and David Marciano. It was an early Saturday evening offering on BBC1, and if it were that long ago, then I would have been watching it with my girlfriend of that era, Mary, and not my then-wife. But it was good fun, and we both loved it.

Some time ago, maybe as much as two years back, I had the opportunity of picking up the season 1 boxset, very cheap. Having started, I decided to finish, and got the other two boxsets for very reasonable prices. I had in mind an episode-by-episode re-watch and blog. But that meant finding time for it in my blogging schedule. Two or three times, I mentally assigned it an ‘after this…’ slot, only for something else to be given priority. So I’m doing it now. This will be Thursday morning for me, and those who are interested in my thoughts, for the next sixteen months, more or less. Let’s take the plunge.

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By the time I discovered Due South, it was already rolling. For those not familiar with the series, Paul Gross plays Corporal Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who is assigned to be a liaison officer attached to the Canadian Embassy in Chicago. Fraser, an expert Mountie with great knowledge and skills learned from a career in the wilds of northern Canada, is paired to work with Chicago Detective Ray Vecchio, played by David Marciano. The set-up combines three quite simple ideas, the fish-out-of-water set-up, the supposedly naive hick who is both smarter and more direct than his sophisticated settings and thus more effective, and the Odd Couple notion. Fraser is unfailingly polite and respectful, quiet, calm to the point of almost impassive, and a believer in the rule of law and the idea that people respect that, whilst Ray is volatile, fast-talking, wise-cracking, and as cynical as any American cop can be. Compare and contrast.

I knew from the way the series harped on it that Fraser had first come to Chicago pursuing the killers of his father, Robert Fraser, a near legendary Mountie, only to stay on once the case was solved. The Pilot film obviously deals with that story, at a 93 minute length.

This is the first time I’ve seen the Pilot. It’s not what I expected, for all that it sets up most of the familiar tropes of the series. This is explained by the discovery that the Pilot was originally written and filmed as a one-off TV movie, but that the response to it when broadcast was so great that it was re-started as a series. The series, as we’ll start to see next week, focussed on the incongruity of Fraser in Chicago, and accentuated the absurdity. The Movie is about something serious. The comedy is restricted to flashes. This is a story about a boy whose Dad has been killed and who is determined to bring his killer to Justice.

Structurally, the Pilot has three Acts, broken up geographically. It begins in Canada, in the frozen, white wastes of the North-Western Territories. A lone Mountie, isolated in the snow, is shot and killed from nowhere. This is the legendary Bob Fraser (Gordon Pinsent), a man of the extreme outdoors, a kind of super-Mountie, spoken of with great warmth, respect and awe. When he’s reported missing, his son Benton, also a Mountie, also a man of the wilds, hardy, straightforward, as at home as the caribou whose deaths, by drowning on dry land, Fraser Sr was investigating, goes out and finds his body. He is determined to see the murder solved. His only lead leads to Chicago…

Which is the second Act. Fraser Sr’s murder is assigned to Detective Ray Vecchio, who has other things on his mind, like 41 other Open cases. Fraser’s presence lends some urgency to the matter, and despite the Mountie having no authority, no legal standing and no right to even be investigating the case, Ray gets involved and the two of them pursue the trail of the professional killer who’s been brought in to kill Fraser Sr. But by whom? The Odd Couple work their way forward but their path is interrupted when their trail leads to a bar where they hope to get Frankie (Francis) Drake’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, his whereabouts are in the bar, and by the time the shooting stops, the owner is claiming $6,000 of damages, Ray’s Captain is ordering him off the case and Fraser’s Senior Officer, Gerard, who was his father’s friend, is there to take him back to Canada, to face a Fitness Board. Before they leave, Frankie tries to kill Fraser who, after a raucous chase through a multi-storey car park, has overpowered the killer and is executing a Citizen’s Arrest, when Gerard shoots Frankie dead, claiming he was about to pull a knife.

It’s as clear as anything that Gerard is involved, and that’s immediately explained once the Third Act starts, back in Canada, back out in the snowy wastes. Fraser has worked it out. A massive hydro-electric plant has been billed, with a dam that has flooded a valley where the caribou would gather. It’s brought jobs and prosperity, and a bigger Phase 2 is soon to be put into operation. But the dam is wrong. It isn’t strong enough to hold back the water so, at night, when no-one’s looking, they open the valves, run water off, drown caribou in water that’s disappeared by morning.

Fraser’s sussed it but Gerard confirms it. He’s been taking pay-offs to keep his mouth shut. He claims Bob Fraser was being paid off too, $3,000 Canadian into a secret Bank Account, every month. Benton doesn’t believe it, and by the end of the movie he gets confirmation that Bob never made and withdrawals, nor any deposits in person, so it’s a put-up, a lever, but in the short-tem he appears to be stymied over the destruction of his father’s reputation.

But he won’t give up. He holes up in Bob’s shack, waiting for them to come to him, his own ground that he knows better tha anyone else. Of course, the first person to arrive is Ray, still battered from the explosion that nearly killed both of them. Ray has also worked out it’s Gerard. But despite Fraser’s caution the pair are still caught out by the arrival of six killers in snow-suits. Of course Fraser and Ray beat them, with a wonderfully choreographed chase sequence, of Fraser on his dogsled ahead of four guys on high-speed snowmobiles. But it looks like ending like Father, like Son, with Fraser in the middle of nowhere, hearing the cocking of a rifle. But the shot, from offscreen, is the Inuit hunter who’s popped up here and there, disabling Gerard and saving the day.

So Gerard pleads guilty, the case is to be fought, and Benton Fraser, having turned one of his own in, placing Justice over Loyalty, has no friends. No-one in the RCMP wants him. But Chicago does…

There you have it. It’s a drama, a murder mystery, a conspiracy, bound powerfully to a son’s filial duty to his father, this last bit a theme that I personally cannot take lightly. A good made-for-TV movie, leavened by moments of humour arising from Fraser’s character, and Ray’s wise-cracking. It’s a far cry from the Due South I used to watch so avidly, unless it’s my memory going soft on me again, but the evidence on that, one way or another, is coming up.

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