Due South: s01 e01 – Free Willie

Due South

After the more serious atmosphere of the Pilot film, I did wonder if Due South was going to turn out to be stronger in my memory than in re-eatching it twenty-five years later. On the strength of the opening episode, that’s not going to be the case.

Thankfully, ‘Free Willie’ nods its head to the glutinous kids film only in its title. It’s otherwise a purely urban story, of armed robbery and detection, complete with no less than three decent chase sequences (only one of which feels as if it’s being over-extended to make the plot fill up the episode length) which strikes the exact right tone for the series to work. Due South is very much a comedy, a fish-out-of-water comedy based on RCMP Constable Benton Fraser – unfailingly polite and helpful – in Chicago, teamed up with ultra-cynical Detective Ray Vecchio, a cop with an up-till-now poor record at cracking cases.

The show gives our Odd Couple serious, straight cases to work on, and layers the comedy on top in the form of the interaction between the leading pair.

The start of the show gives a perfect example. The open is wholly straight. Three armed figures in grey bolier suits, ski-masks and shades invade a Chicago brokerage, shoot a guard in the arm and force the manager to open the vault. They steal one specific folder of bearer bonds. In the elevator going down, they strip off the bolier suits. Two of them, ordinary guys, exit the bank and turn stage left, the third, who we don’t see for reasons pertinent to the plot, turns stage right, carying a distinctive pale leather bag. Cue titles.

We then get Benton being driven by Ray to his proposed new apartment in a slum. Ray is full pof advice, all of which boils down to

We then get Benton being driven by Ray to his proposed new apartment in a slum. Ray is full of advice, all of which boils down to Don’t. It’s a lousy neighbourhood, the building’s a slum, the apartment’s a disaster area. Fraser, on the other hand, is one of nature’s own optimists, genuinely believing that everything can be solved by treating people fairly and decently, an opinion totally alien to the naturally cynical Ray, as well as to anyone who’s been a Chicago cop.

And here’s where we get the first couple of lines. Fraser points out that the area is central and easily available for work, he can walk it in seven minutes, to which Ray replies, ‘Not without backup’. As for Fraser’s hotel, he’s already checked out, because the windows don’t open, leaving Ray to point out that the only reason people open windows in Chicago is to get a clearer aim.

What follows is the first and most over-extended chase sequence. Fraser sees a teenage pickpocket, the Willie of the title, Willie Lambert (Christopher Babers), snatches an old lady’s bag. He goes after him. It’s a three part chase: Diefenbaker (the deaf wolf, remember) on four legs, Ray on two, but Fraser takes to the rooftops, almost unhurriedly following Willie’s path and finally intercepting. It’s funny initially, especially as Ray is on the rooftops at first, taking things in much less of his stride, but it simply goes on too long.

Once Fraser confronts him, Willie produces a gun. Fraser talks him into handing it over. Once it’s run through ballistics, it’s shown to be a match for the gun that shot the guard in his arm. The three robbers, identified by the manager, Hamlin (Ed Sahely), as all male, included one much shorter than the others, about 5′ 3″. The Police, which includes Ray, like Willie for the shortie.

In the Police station, we get to meet what will be the main supporting cast for at least this season: Ray’s rivals Detectives Jack Huey (Tony Craig) and Louis – pronounced Lewis – Guardino (Daniel Kash), better known as Huey and Looey, and world-weary Lieutenant Harding Walsh (Beau Starr), not to mention Station Officer Elaine Besbriss (Catherine Bruhier), who Ray fancies but who definitely fancies Fraser.

Fraser’s the only one who’s convinced Willie isn’t involved. He manages the kid to trust him enough to admit that he got the gun by grabbing a bag off a woman. On the back of Fraser guaranteeing his return – and if he doesn’t come back, Vecchio is out – Willie leads them to the bag. Which contains sheets of thick, white, blank paper. Meanwhile, a young and very attractive woman named Caroline Morgan (Christina Cox) has gotten into Willie’s trail. She’s the robber’s leader and he’s the only one who can identify her.

The gang strike whilst Fraser and Ray are examining the scene at the brokerage and talking to Hamlin. Something about his manner clued me in to his being involved (the plot’s not a rip-off of Donald Westlake’s Cops and Robbers but the scheme is similar), just before Hamlin makes the mistake that triggers Ray’s intuition and Fraser’s deductive skills, when he describes the one who went into the vault as ‘her’.

Incidentally, the show is already confident enough to toy with one of its signature tropes: inside the vault, Fraser licks a finger and holds it up, turning round. When Ray wants to know how that helped him figure out Hamlin was involved, Fraser tells him all the finger told him was there was a fault in the ventilation suystem, which he reports to a maintenance man on the way out.

All of this is being intercut with Caroline’s gang outside trying to smash their way into Ray’s car to get at Willie, who hotwires it and drives off, with the gang in hot pursuit. Fraser and Ray are also in hot pursuit, only Fraser’s commandeered one of those pony and carriage ‘see Chicago’ tour outfits. The spectacle of them chasing two high-speedng cars, and keeping up with them, is wonderfully silly and not overdone, but though they drive off the robbers, Willie has absconded. So Ray has until 5.00pm to clean out his desk.

Which is the moment that Fraser solves the case. Everyone’s been slightly baffled by why the robbers striuck just after 5.00pm, in rush hour. But this enabled Hamlin to send the real bonds out of the office just before then, in an envelope collected by the postal courier. Which he’s going to collect from the Post Office Depot… If the lovely but untrusting Caroline and Co let him…

All of which leads to our third and conclusive chase, throughout the depot, causing havoc. The two blokes are taken out but Caroline gets the drop on Ray, holding a gun to his neck. She tells Fraser to pick up the spilled bonds, though he warns her not to do so. Because, as he explains, the bonds are a promise, in trust and honour. Once he has them, he cannot hand them over. Over her increasingly angry threats to kill Ray, he walks away, until she takes a shot at him, at which point Ray brings her down. All part of other plan to raise her frustration levels to where Ray would get his shot at her, he explains, pleased that Ray understood it all and played along perfectly. Except that Ray was in a blind panic, pleading for his life. Oh, dear, my mistake says Fraser.

Of course there’s more to it than that. The story inevitably comes over as serious, as it should, a well-balanced police procedural that could be produced on nearly any series, with the comedy arising from the twists and turns of the tale, yet floating like a layer on top of it, like the cream on a strawberry shortcake. And thus so much harder to explain and draw out. It’s not always going to be like that, eventually the absurdity will creep into the stories as well, and when we get that far we’ll see how well – or if – that works. But here at the start, it works a treat. Roll on episode 2.

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