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But is "Intelligence"...Intelligent?:
...the anvil test and other theorems


Last time I wrote a bit about the poor ratings of the Chris Haddock produced CBC crime-drama, Intelligence. What no one seems to dispute is that Intelligence is a great show (just as no one disputed Haddock/CBC’s previous series, DaVinci’s Inquest, was a great show), it’s merely whether the audience is just too stupid to appreciate it, or whether the CBC has failed to promote it right.

So here’s the thing: I reasonably like Intelligence. I give it three out of four stars in my reviews (I tend to be miserly with four-out-of-four ratings). But though I like Intelligence, I don`t necessarily love it. I think I referred to it as hypnotic; it`s a show that you can kind of turn off the lights and veg out to for an hour. It`s an interesting distraction…but I don`t find it compelling drama.

That may or may not put me in the majority camp of Canadians, but it clearly puts me in a tiny minority of critics and reviewers. Just looking at Denis McGrath`s blog (yeah, I`m getting pretty lazy in my scouring for reference points) people can`t say enough about Intelligence. To them, it has redefined and transcended the medium and is something to which all other series will have to aspire -- and already are, according to some. One (anonymous) blogger lamented the CBC’s seeming unwillingness to support a show that “asks so much of its audience”, preferring, instead, “Tim Horton‘s television” (as opposed to -- what? Starbuck‘s TV?).

Man -- I wish I was watching the same show they were.

And that just boils down to what you, I, or a cat named Kalamazoo consider our personal barometers of sophistication, of ground breaking, of provocative. We all want to believe that such things are objective. That intelligent programming is easily identifiable…usually as whatever we like. And lame is equally clearly identified…`cause we don`t like it. But it`s not that simple -- things rarely are.

To me, being an old fashioned sort, it usually boils down to one thing…characterization. Give me a good actor giving a nuanced performance, saying textured dialogue and nine times out of ten I`ll cite that as more sophisticated than all the fancy edits and stylish camera tricks you can name.

To me, Intelligence is all about style -- in much the same way DaVinci`s Inquest was. I just don`t see it being about the characters, or about their emotional journeys. If an anvil were to suddenly drop on most of the main characters, I doubt I`d care much. Maybe if lead cop, Mary Spalding (Klea Scott) got the anvil I’d be mildly miffed. But that’s about it.

Intelligence, being populated by either crooks, or cops who basically act like crooks, doesn’t give you a lot to become emotionally attached to. But even then, they could maybe involve you with the characters in a way that, for me, they haven’t.

To use an example that will, no doubt, send shudders through Intelligence fans, a year or so back, there was a short lived CBC soap called 49th and Main -- it was low-budget, with kind of cheap, tacky sets, and some uneven performances. But I think a key scene that stands out for me was when the show’s nominal hero, played by Cedric de Souza, agrees to go on a dinner date with a much younger, pretty, but kind of ditzy woman. The audience knows she’s a bimbo, and the doctor hero can do better. So then we have the dinner date and, sure enough, it’s going badly and, more to the point, the girl knows it…and then something interesting starts to happen. We start to feel bad for her, and the doctor seems like he’s being a bit of a jerk, not entirely hiding his condescension. And suddenly a scene which seemed so straight forward -- nice guy hero, dippy butt-of-the-joke girl -- gets turned on its head and we realize the emotions at play are more complicated than that.

To me, that’s good drama. One that can take a bunch of different --sometimes diametrically opposing -- characters, and challenge you by making you realize you can’t always take sides, that each character has their own point of view, and each character can be empathized with. “Six Feet Under” managed that for the first couple of seasons, so did “Peter Benchley’s Amazon” (and yes, I did quite deliberately juxtapose one of the most critically acclaimed series of modern times with a series largely dismissed by critics when it aired).

But, to me, it’s something Intelligence hasn’t done….nor is it even trying.

As I say, it’s all about the style. As an example, I read an article mentioning how they were going to give lead heroine Mary Spalding (Klea Scott) a speech peculiarity of giving instructions but followed up with a “yeah?” as if assuming everyone was already in agreement (as in, “I want you to put surveillance on this guy, yeah?”) -- the article suggested it spoke a lot to Mary’s character and command style (and was apparently “borrowed” from the BBC drama Prime Suspect…also overrated, but that’s another topic). Except…when you watch the show, half the characters use that verbal trick. So what was being described as a character trait in the article, turns out, in practice is just another example of the show’s style irrespective of the individuality of the characters.

Intelligence shows us what the characters are doing. A good drama -- to me -- shows us why they’re doing it, emotionally, psychologically. In one -- minor -- sub-plot, drug kingpin Jimmy Reardon (Ian Tracey) begins a relationship with a young woman (young, like half his age) that he wants to keep secret from his psycho ex-wife who’s still in his life. So this allows for some surface plotting as Jimmy works to keep the relationship secret…but there’s little emotional justification for it, little attempt to tell us why Jimmy is in this relationship (other than, y’know, she’s young and a hottie) or what he feels about this woman. Or consider top cop Mary. I mean, why did she become a cop? To fight crime? To make the streets safe? Yet in two seasons, she seems to have arrested -- well, just about no one. She spends most of her time bailing her pet crimelord out of trouble or, when she does snag a bad guy…she “turns” him, cutting a deal where he walks free but becomes her informant, because she’s always after some bigger, more elusive fish.

Come on, don’t tell me that’s not a character who wouldn’t look at herself in the mirror every morning and wonder just what the Hell is she doing with her life, how did her noble aspirations get so topsy turvy? But do we get that character? No. We get a speech pattern -- “yeah” -- in place of emotional nakedness. And that’s true of most of the characters, as the show’s style, a kind of cinema verite of “yeahs” and “rights”, doesn’t allow much room for human angst.

And when Haddock and his crew do condescend to toss in a bit of soap opera/human interest…there’s no continuity, no follow through. In one episode, Jimmy’s right hand man -- well played by John Cassini -- tells his black girlfriend -- fetchingly plated by Alana Husband -- that he won’t take her to meet his mother, ‘cause his mom has a problem with black people. Yet, then, in a later episode, the two are planning to have a kid and buy a house -- what? Still without him introducing her to his mom? In that same episode, the two have a big fight when he reveals he’s still technically married to his first wife -- yet the next episode makes not so much as an allusion to that earlier fight.

Yeah, I know what the sophisticated fans of Intelligence are snickering -- mushy stuff like human relationships are generally seen as too “Tim Horton’s”, too crass, too Hollywood, too schmaltzy. Fine…if scenes like that don’t belong in Intelligence, they shouldn’t be there. But if they’re going to put them there, then there needs to be follow through. That’s just good story telling. More to the point…that’s just realism.

Now let me reiterate the obvious: I’m just giving you my take on the show. Maybe fans of the series would tell you they find it an emotional rollercoaster and they feel the pain of each and every character. Maybe. ‘Course I also knew someone who swore Three’s Company was a profound dissection of contemporary society.


So if we aren’t watching Intelligence ‘cause we are emotionally involved in the characters, that leaves the plotting. But, man, I gotta tell ya, I can’t get too worked up about that either. Intelligence is a serialized narrative, meaning each episode is not meant to stand alone with its own beginning, middle and end, but rather is part of a larger story arc. But the story arcs just seem to ramble about, padded out with sub-plots that are numbingly uninteresting (two seasons of Jimmy waffling back and forth on cornering the ATM market!), and where denouements often seem abrupt, anti-climactic or just hastily thrown together. Because of its deliberately hypnotic rhythm, there are very few “punch” moments, scenes that jump out at you with dramatic unexpectedness, or twisty revelations. That’s too “Tim Horton’s”, I guess.

And that’s where we get into the you say tomato and I say, well, tomato as well (but, y’know, we pronounicate it, like, different). Fans say the slow, deliberate pacing “demands” more of its viewers, not rewarding them with crass jolts per minute. But a detractor could say, it demands considerably less from its audience, as it basically just plods along comfortably, not really challenging the viewer with any twists or turns. In fact, the series is so desperate to make its plots seem twistier than they are, the characters are frequently involved in clandestine meetings and operations that, when viewed critically, at times seem superfluous, redundant, and like the characters are busy recruiting and coercing go-betweens when, really, a simple phone call to the parties involved would be simpler.

As an example of -- well, plot and/or character (take your pick) -- I was thinking about the second season finale. In it, Jimmy and his gang have been worrying about incursions from another crime syndicate. At a high level meeting, Jimmy tells his lieutenants that he will deal with the problem by killing the rival crime lord. Tough words. Later that episode, though, the rival gang gets in a pre-emptive move by killing some of Jimmy’s men. Jimmy’s response -- after already promising to kill his rival even before this provocation? -- his response is to make peace by whole heartedly capitulating and giving the rival gang everything they wanted in the first place. Jimmy did a complete turnabout in one episode and folded like a cheap lawn chair. To me, that just smacks of really awkward writing. I mean, how did Jimmy think that was going to accomplish anything to his benefit? And if it was supposed to reflect Jimmy’s loathing for violence…then why did he vow to kill the guy in the first place?

I could go on with petty, minor quibbles. Fans who praise the show’s realism (even citing an op ed piece written by an ex-American spy turned TV producer who apparently praised the show’s authenticity) even as its central tenet is the idea of a Canadian intelligence chief frequently at odds with American intelligence agents. A wishful fantasy often embraced by Canadian filmmakers, but not too realistic as the Maher Arar case would seem to demonstrate.

Despite this being mainly a list of its flaws (as I see ‘em), as mentioned, I actually kind of like Intelligence. I could equally spend time detailing some of the series’ strengths -- but I won’t. And that’s because this essay isn’t meant so much to be a fully realized analysis/exploration of the series, but a simple rebuttal to those who are telling us it’s the greatest thing to hit TV…since, well, the last greatest thing to hit TV, and such greatness is incontestable and easily appreciated by anyone who isn’t a moron.

Intelligence is a decent enough show, for what it is: the actors are good, it has a “flavour” about it, and if you’re prepared to put aside the hour a week, as mentioned, it has a kind of soothing, hypnotic rhythm. But I just don’t see it as ground breaking television, or something that has re-set the bar or, more, is something to which all other series should aspire. And other than using such easy catch phrases as “demanding” and “sophisticated”, articles praising the show haven’t really articulated (for me) why fans do believe it is all of those things.

Okay, I realize that’s a bit silly. Back to the whole “tomato/tomato” thing. Sometimes you just can’t explain these things -- either you “get” it, or you don’t. Still, I’ve at least tried to articulate some of my ambivalence about the show, and to cite examples of what I regard as good -- and not so good -- storytelling. Even then, in the interest of brevity, I’ve probably been too vague in spots.

I just figure, given the whole “controversy” about why Intelligence’s ratings aren’t better, and a seeming party line being established telling us how great Intelligence is, it’s healthy for any discourse to provide an alternate point of view.

And this was mine.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Jan. 8, 2008

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