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Marking "The Border":
...what's it trying to be?



 

(Addendum: okay, an addendum should come after -- sue me. Anyway, I wrote the below post just as an analysis of the pilot episode of "The Border" and I clearly state it is not meant to be a review of the series in general, which I hadn't seen. So, to make that point, I just thought I'd now add this intro saying I've now seen the second episode of "The Border"...and it works quite a bit better; smoother, more sure of its detective/suspense tone -- ironically, less "issue" oriented. Heck, it even guest starred two of my fav actors -- Gary Farmer and Jennifer Podemski! If the second episode is a representation of the series overall then, yeah, no apologies, they've made a series that can stand next to American series like 24 and CSI. (The only downside -- but one sure to please conservative detractors of the series -- is a slight shift to the right in its politics).

The Border is the CBC’s new, highly anticipated drama series about an elite Canadian Immigration Security agency that is the thin line standing between Canada and the importation of the evils of the rest of the world -- or vice versa. Billed as “24 (the hit US action-spy series) but with a conscience“, the series is, apparently, as much about the characters trying to make sure justice is done -- and not just seen to be done -- as it is about battling bad guys.

All in all, like a lot of modern Canadian series, The Border is technically well done -- slick, stylish, well-acted, reasonably expensive looking. Basically, unapologetically aiming to be “world class” (what ever that is) TV.

I’m not about to pass any overall judgement on the series after watching only one episode -- it’s not a misfire, but not yet a sure fire “must see” TV, either. It can often take a couple of episodes for series to find their legs. We’ll see how it shakes down over the next few weeks.

But watching the first episode, I couldn’t help but be struck by a vague feeling -- a feeling, it seems to me, I’ve felt with a few modern Canadian series which, as noted above, are well produced technically. And that was a feeling of: why?

Why was I watching it?

And sometimes, I fear we’re losing the forest for the trees in a lot of these series, as producers (and critics) are so focused on the particulars -- the performances, the lighting, the stylish edits, etc. -- they lose track of the basic impetus of the show. Producers need to have a sense of what are their targets -- and then ask, did they meet them?

That is, if you do a series, and you intend it as a comedy, then the bottom line is -- is it funny? It can be beautifully acted, stylishly filmed, it can provide telling insight into the human condition. It can do a hundred and one things well. But if it ain’t funny…it ain’t a comedy. (I’m thinking of the new CBC series, Sophie, in which the commercials advertised it as a comedy…yet in assembling the montage of scenes for the ad, couldn’t actually seem to offer anything that was, y’know, a joke).

So in that sense, after an hour, I looked back on The Border and asked myself: what. What was it supposed to be? A thriller? A mystery? A human drama? What were the filmmakers aiming for?

And the fact that I’m not entirely sure is, I think, a problem.

In fact, the problem with The Border is that too much of the press emphasizes its topicality, its social relevance, its aspirations to be thinking man’s TV. All well and good. But first and foremost, it has to be entertainment.

The premise of the first episode is that the agents arrest a known Muslim terrorist at the airport…and also pick up another Muslim he was seen talking to, more just as a “person of interest”. But then CSIS agents swoop in and grab up both men over our heroes objections, who argue the second man was simply to be investigated, but there’s no proof he was guilty of anything more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And that kind of forms the crux of the episode, as they seek to prove whether the second man is innocent or not.

So what is The Border? Is it an action thriller as the 24 comparison would imply? Well, not so far. It’s trying to be more realistic than that. Suspense in situations like that can only be generated if there’s a threat of danger -- something that can’t readily be created in a series like this (24 is more sci-fi than reality). Actually, they do a decent job in the opening scene, when they arrest the terrorist at the airport and it turns into a hostage taking and with the terrorist possibly loaded with a bomb. But in general, in a series like this, cop heroes aren’t really in a lot of personal danger. A later scene where two of the heroes chase a suspect through some alley ways can be mildly diverting…but, again, it’s not really “suspenseful” for that reason. There was no threat of actual danger, and no threat of dire consequences if they failed to catch him then and there (they knew who he was so, even if he escaped, they could presumably pick him up later).

Is it a character drama? Well…sort of. But not really in any rich or complex way. The characters basically take their fence-sitting stand (he might be guilty, he might not) at the beginning…and don’t really waver from it. No one really changes their view over the course of the episode.

And it perhaps reflects a problem I’ve noted in a few well-intentioned, “political” Canadian dramas; and that is, for all their high brow sheen of sophistication, there’s a kind of childish cartooniness to them. The level headed, small-l liberal heroes are contrasted with the more draconian, “arrest ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” CSIS agent. An agent played by a vampire.

No, really. Actor Nigel Bennett, if he has a signature role, it’s that of the evil vampire LaCroix in TV’s Forever Knight. Bennett’s a decent actor who can play different roles, but his part in The Border is the sort of thing he could do in his sleep. He was the evil villain. Period. But that’s just boring. More interesting by far would be to have given us a more subtly nuanced character, a guy we could believe truly, sincerely thought what he did was for the greater good. In a way, what made the notorious Cancer Man in the X-Files effective was the atypical casting of Canadian actor William B. Davis -- because Davis wasn’t really that sinister-seeming or physically intimidating. So that he seemed like a man -- a man who had done terrible, evil things -- but a man. Not a cartoon. In The Border, by setting up a one-note villain like that, it undermines one of the series’ chief selling points: that it’s meant to be a thinking man’s, provocative show. (Even the core premise: that Canadian authorities would pick up a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil and ship him off to a foreign country, seems unrealistic).

Anyway, so what we’re left with (in our quest to decide what they were going for in that episode) is to say The Border was a mystery series, with a more subtle suspense agenda as we wait to see how they resolve the dilemma.

And that’s where I’m going to get all pretentious and pretend I have words of wisdom to impart.

See, if I were a story editor on a series like that, and was handed a script proposal like the one that was filmed, I’d want to break it down. Ask: what are we going for? What are our key targets? And have we hit them?

In a story -- particularly a suspense story -- you have to ask, what are your characters trying to achieve, what are the consequences if they don’t achieve them, and how do we know if they’ve succeeded or failed?

In an earlier essay, about the new series Battlestar Galactica, I briefly mentioned that a character facing death provides a dramatic hook to a story. We’ll now call that an example of a point of no return. Once the story has gone beyond that point -- the heroes have failed. The point of no return, then, is the moment of crisis, the moment of narrative climax that will decide the resolution of the story.

In The Border, the possibly innocent Muslim is shipped off to a Syrian prison and the heroes want to see him brought home. So, what exactly is the point of no return here?

Answer? There isn’t one, really. If he returns to Canada the next day, or the next month, or the next year, the difference -- dramatically speaking -- is more nuance than anything.

And if there isn’t a point of no return, it’s hard to create suspense. So let’s back up and say: what if the story was restructured? What if he is going to be shipped off to Syria, but hasn’t been yet? Ah hah! Now we have a point of no return. Once he’s in Syrian hands, he is beyond the heroes ability to help him. And besides, as victims of torture will tell you, once the torture has begun, the scars last a life time. So rescuing him after he’s been shipped overseas is a bit like closing the door after the proverbial horses have gone walkabout.

So now we have a point of no return -- a time table. (He will be shipped out tomorrow at midnight, f’rinstance, and the heroes have to find some way to prevent it). And, hence, we have suspense -- will the heroes accomplish their task in time? As well, it avoids an awkward plot element of the story. Namely, I don’t believe Canadian authorities have ever been accused of “rendering” suspects (ie: shipping them to third party nations to be tortured) the way the Americans do. Oh, Canadians aren’t innocents. They’ve certainly facilitated it, or turned a blind eye to it. But for The Border to blithely suggest Canada does do it, undermines the political relevancy of the series -- perhaps worse, will mute the moral outrage if/when Canadian authorities do try such a thing, by making it seem blasé. So by having the heroes work to stop it before it occurs, it doesn’t mess as much with political realism.

And ultimately, the way the heroes do score a “victory” in the episode was, I’ll admit, just kind of lame and anti-climactic -- lacking the clever, chess master strategy they were presumably hoping it would have. Basically, the heroes draw public attention to the Muslim’s plight…by drawing public attention to a previous, well publicized case. But, um, anyone could’ve done that. It just seemed…tepid.

I couldn’t help thinking of an episode of the sci-fi series Babylon 5 where the hero is under pressure from his political masters to end a strike, those masters being unwilling to meet the strikers demands -- they want the hero to declare martial law, giving himself dictatorial powers, so that he can break up the strike violently. After resisting this move, the hero finally capitulates and declares martial law -- then announces that, since he now has absolute authority, he has the authority to settle the strike…by granting the strikers everything they wanted. So he used the very power his bosses thrust upon him…to act against his bosses wishes. Now that was clever.

Anyhoo…

As mentioned earlier, perhaps the Border could be viewed as a mystery. But if so, what’s the mystery? Well, is the Muslim bystander innocent or not? Admittedly, it’s a lot harder to prove innocence than guilt -- there’s no “smoking gun” of innocence. But that’s the scenario the filmmakers set up…and one that never really results in a narrative pay off.

So again, playing “let’s pretend we’re the story editor”, re-examining the episode, we could say the key plot point is when the terrorist hands the second man a slip of paper at the beginning. If nor for that slip of paper, no one would’ve looked at the second Muslim twice, and he never would’ve been arrested. The bystander Muslim says it was just the name of a good orthodontist and that’s what it was, and the story moves on from there. It actually becomes a pointless plot element.

But…what if we restructured the story?

What if we had it be that the note isn’t recovered? Now we have a smoking gun -- whatever is on that note will decide the matter, one way or the other. After all, the note was the only thing that raised their suspicions in the first place. Will it be the innocent name of an orthodontist…or some sinister terrorist blueprint? And the very fact that they can’t find the note becomes suspicious in itself. And the search for the note could provide a thread through the episode.

Maybe they could have it be that in the opening action sequence, one of the heroes tramples through something sticky -- maybe later ruefully lamenting his soiled shoes as he tosses them in a drawer to take to the cleaners later. Then, in the climax of the episode, something twinges in his mind and, retrieving the shoes, he turns them over and finds, stuck to the bottom of his shoe…the missing note, with the name of an orthodontist on it.

Or something.

Watching the pilot of The Border, it seemed like all the trees were in place…but it wasn’t quite making a forest. It reminded me of some other Canadian series I’ve seen lately -- neither fish nor fowl. Series with lots of money and talent and professionalism, series with world class production values and dressed for success. But on the fundamental level of what and why, seem a bit unfocused. Comedies that aren’t that funny. Thrillers that aren’t that thrilling. Mysteries that aren’t that mysterious. Character dramas with ill-developed characters. Political dramas that seem to disregard political reality.

The Border has spent months hyping its topicality and its big budget bombasticness. But in order to succeed, it needs to decide what it wants to be, what targets it’s set up for itself, and then hit those targets.

In short, it needs to entertain.

After one episode, it’s way too early to say whether it will succeed. But there are definitely some areas that could use tweaking.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Jan. 10, 2008

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