Endgame vs. King (Part 2)
...Which was better?…and the shadow of Wojeck, too!
Continuing my “post-game” analysis relating to the renewal of King and the cancellation of Endgame.
I’m doing this, in part, because media coverage tends to always be looking to the next thing over the hill, rarely stopping to consider what’s current, let alone just past. Most of the coverage of both TV series was when they premiered, the reviews based only on one or two episodes. So now that both series’ first seasons have run, and the fate of one is sealed, while the other will (theoretically) return, I wanted to comment on them. Last time I made some observations on some of the fan (and anti-fan) reactions. Today I’m considering the shows themselves, and just offering my thoughts.
King is a police procedural about a squad of detectives, run by the brilliant but sometimes difficult Jessica King. Endgame is an amateur detective mystery about a brilliant but sometimes difficult Russian chess player, Arkady Balagan, confined to the grounds of a swank hotel due to agoraphobia, who solves puzzling crimes.
As mentioned in my previous piece, Endgame seemed to garner the more enthusiastic -- even fervent -- fandom. Even to the point where a “Save Endgame” campaign has been mounted. How likely is its success is, of course, debateable -- because, even in the US where such campaigns often occur, it only occasionally leads to a reprieve, because I’m not sure in raw numbers how big the campaign is (or would need to be), and because, cynically speaking, one gets the impression the audience is only one factor in decisions made about Canadian TV! Still, reading comments made by fans can really instil in you a sympathetic enthusiasm for the series -- indeed, I wish I was seeing in it what those who love it do. I like Endgame. I’m just not loving it.
Endgame had a nice concept and was well acted all around, but the supporting cast never quite became more than a (likeable) supporting cast. A lot of detective series -- even (or especially) those with a quirky lead, rely on a give-and-take pairing, some chemistry between the leads. But in Endgame, we didn’t really have that. Whether that was a problem with the writing, the personality of the characters, or the charisma of the actors, none of the supporting players quite stepped forward to occupy the second chair. Russian chess master Arkady Balagan (played by Shawn Doyle) was the main show. And though the series was trying to straddle humour and drama, for the most part I’m not sure it pushed enough in either direction. I watch a series like Castle, and I’m laughing. Endgame? I’m more smiling pleasantly. Likewise, dramatically I didn’t quite find it that emotionally gripping -- even despite the on going sub-plot involving Balagan’s murdered wife. I didn’t quite get drawn into the characters enough that they clicked with me emotionally.
Just as an sidebar, often the cliché in modern series is the romantic tension -- the will they/won’t they question that can bubble as an undercurrent for many seasons. Yet I didn’t really get that in Endgame. There’s no reason they should, of course -- lots of series don't. But it relates to my earlier points, both about having a foil for him to play off of, and giving us something to invest in emotionally. Pippa (Melanie Papalia) -- the sister of Balagan’s dead wife, pushing the investigation of her sister’s murder -- would be an obvious character to milk for some romantic tension (after all, romantic tension needs an obstacle…and a plausible obstacle to any unspoken attraction would be their former in-law status). Yet if it’s there...I haven’t seen it. Actually they did do an episode suggesting a certain sexual tension between Balagan and the bartender (played by Katharine Isabelle) but it seemed a bit out-of-left-field, as if the writers were just window shopping for a concept, but not really committed to it.
The mysteries themselves can be a bit…uneven. Often where they’re not really explaining things they need to explain, or seem to harp on things that are too obviously red herrings, or the solutions are unconvincing. There are two templates for a mystery (well, actually there are dozens, but anyway). One is the traditional Agatha Christie one, best epitomized by TV’s Murder, She Wrote in which a mystery is threaded with soap opera-y complications involving the guest stars -- episodes ending not just with the revelation of the killer, but estranged siblings patching up their differences, or young lovers declaring their devotion. The other template, more common today, is the procedural, where the guest star characters are basically there just to provide clues, and where our interest is held simply by the rapid fire pacing, as one revelation after another opens a new area of investigation. Sometimes where the true killer isn’t even introduced till late in the show because we aren’t really trying to puzzle out the villain’s identity…as much as we’re just seeing where the case takes us. I would argue Endgame is leaning a bit toward the Murder, She Wrote idea, with a cast of characters in a usually limited locale (the hotel) who keep interacting throughout the episode. Except I’m not really sure they’ve put enough effort into trying to make us care about the guest stars as anything more than pieces of the puzzle. They try at times but don’t fully succeed.
And then we get to the murder of his wife sub-plot. And frankly, it seemed a bit ill-conceived, as though they figured they should have an on going puzzle to thread through the series -- but hadn’t bothered to actually plot out a mystery. Part of the problem (and perhaps a flaw of the hotel setting) is it seems all very academic -- we are constantly being told this happened, and that happened, and maybe this was involved, and so-and-so confessed but maybe was lying…and it’s all off camera! If/when the killer is revealed, we aren’t really holding out any expectation that he will mean anything to us, other than a name. But more to the point -- it was a “mystery” largely devoid of real clues. In the thirteenth (and, as fate has it, the final episode) we met a mobster who basically confessed to the murder, but indicated he was working for someone else. Yet in thirteen episodes I’m not sure we got a single clue as to the murder -- something we could imagine would prove relevant if a final revelation had ever occurred. The US detective series, Life, also used the template of a mystery-of-the-week married with an on going investigation -- and I sometimes felt that it seemed like they were stretching a bit (cutting away to the hero’s “conspiracy wall” of clues and suspects that often seemed to have little real meaning). Yet in Life, we still had a gradual unravelling of a mystery -- by the end of the nine episode first season alone, many of the puzzle pieces had been filled in. While after 13 episodes of Endgame, despite referencing the wife’s murder in almost every episode, we had nothing -- I can’t even hazard the wildest guess as to what might prove the solution, because I’m not sure we were told anything (did we even know what the wife did for a living?)!
Endgame’s handling of the murdered wife plot, to be honest, sticks in my craw a bit, reflective of much of what I don’t like about modern series with their “on going” story lines. It felt lazy and, frankly, amateurish (not to mention smacking of hubris that they didn‘t wrap it up by the season finale). Now, with that said, since it was just a sub-plot, it doesn’t preclude enjoying the series overall, or watching it in reruns. That mystery will never be solved, but the crimes-of-the-week -- the series’ main point -- were (and, as I say, it’s not like I was genuinely intrigued to see where it was headed anyway).
It actually puts me in mind of another recently cancelled Canadian series, Shattered. That, too, seemed to be borrowing the Life idea of an on going investigation, complete with a “conspiracy wall” (or a “conspiracy RV”) where the hero had tacked up various “clues” -- yet like Endgame, there seemed no effort made to actually present anything that seemed like a real mystery with real clues. But at least it did provide a solution in time for its final episode, making it more satisfying in retrospect.
Still…a lot of this is nitpicking. As I’ve repeatedly said -- I kind of liked Endgame. I think it’s genuinely too bad it got the axe, and, hey, if a fan petition can get the executives to reverse their decision, I’ll be happy to see it happen. Indeed, the enthusiasm of the fans is genuinely charming and heartening to see -- it kind of makes me wish I liked the series as much as they did! What’s interesting is, of course, how it’s all perspective. Reading some of the reviews and message board comments at the IMDB clearly a lot of viewers loved it -- loved the characters while I merely like them, and they praise the “sophistication” of the series. Of course, it’s almost a given that fans of any particular show will see it as smarter, more intelligent than all other shows, and blame any premature cancellation on the plebeian tastes of the general audience. I don’t think Endgame is dumb -- not at all -- but I’m not sure I’d suggest it belongs in the “too smart for TV” category. For me the mysteries-of-the-week could be a little unconvincing and the characters were likeable, without quite rising to the level of complex, multi-dimensional human beings.
As mentioned, I heartily applauded the very “concept” notion of Endgame -- it may well be one of the more singular premises for a Canadian series in a while. Doyle is good -- the cast overall is good (whatever I may’ve said about the characters not quite jumping any bars). I also applauded the ethnic pluralism of the cast.
Actually, there’s one last thing I want to observe about Endgame -- not that it really relates to how good or bad it was. But it was a frustratingly “soft” Canadian series -- like they were a little uncomfortable in their mukluks. That is, in one episode, they do refer to being in Vancouver, and occasionally Canadian money can be seen. But in general, the series seemed to work very hard to avoid identifying itself as “Canadian” -- most of the hotel guests were Americans, and most place names used were American. Indeed, I’m not sure if in any episode I saw did they ever refer to a Canadian city or province (other than the one reference to Vancouver) whereas references to American cities and states occurred frequently. And Canadian-specific terms or phrases were avoided. In short, if someone were to watch the majority of episodes -- I think they would assume it was set in the US.
No such cultural shyness seemed to plague King, a series which happily peppers its snow draped scenes with Canadian terms and phrases (Crown Attorneys, Staff Sergeants). Though King, perhaps, loses points for not being as ethnically diverse in its casting as Endgame.
So why might King have gotten an extension on the respirator when Endgame had its plug pulled? It doesn’t appear as though the ratings were significantly better (some episodes pulling in better numbers than Endgame, some worse). A casual survey I did among friends and family indicated more people had heard of Endgame than King -- so maybe King has the better chance at building an audience if people were actually aware of it! Ironically, maybe the very inspecific-ness of the premise, about a big city major crimes squad, was seen as a plus. Just as I applaud Endgame for its quirky premise, an executive might have seen that very premise as too limiting when stretched over multiple seasons. Maybe a quirky detective was seen as having a niche audience, whereas King was seen as having a chance at winning the mainstream crowd that watches CSI and Hawaii 5-0 and Law & Order. And in that vein, it’s a little unfair to compare the two, because they are after all separate sub-genres of the mystery/detective milieu.
Maybe they just thought King was better.
I watched the whole eight episode season and, if anything, just found myself getting more and more into as it went along. Endgame, though I liked, I did find myself skipping episodes here and there.
Ultimately, I do find King more sure-footed. The pacing is a bit snappier, carrying you along for the hour and pushing the narrative forward from scene to scene. I’m noticing fewer plot/logic holes to the episodes than I do in Endgame (recognizing that can be subjective). I came upon one message board comment pointing out a King episode had used a plot idea similar to a US series -- therefore criticizing King's originality. The funny thing is, though I too noticed the familiarity of the "twist"...I recognized it from a different US series. Indicating if King was being derivative, it wasn't the only one!
Interestingly, I find King pulls the unusual trick of mixing that procedural thing I mentioned earlier, where you’re just interested in where each new twist takes you, with a human/character aspect. The victims and suspects are often more than just plot points, perhaps explaining the consistent quality of the guest star performances -- the actors are given something to play. The episodes are actually named after a victim in the episode (not that you know that on screen) suggesting a deliberate attempt to maintain a human focus to the mystery -- indeed, knowing that, you can wonder why an episode is named after a certain character, and it’s only by the end that you realize why that character might be a “victim” too. King teases on going threads along from week to week, but unlike Endgame with its mystery, these threads are purely character/domestic relating to King’s private life -- yet maybe that provides a contrast with the mystery-of-the-week. And since it’s not pretending to be an on going “mystery” (like Endgame’s murdered wife plot) someone like me can’t complain about a lack of real clues.
King seems to also be a “liberal” cop series, in a Flashpoint vein (though I hesitate to say so, in case I jinx it). These aren’t tough bruisers eager to shoot it out and quick to spit on weak-kneed civilians…but generally seem to be compassionate crusaders looking for justice. And, I’ll admit, I’m often mixed on cop series because I’m not too keen on the right wing, occasionally fascist philosophy of a lot of such series.
When it comes to foils, Alan Van Sprang effortlessly slips into the second chair, delivering a compelling performance, an interesting character, and generating good chemistry with series star, Amy Price-Francis.
And then we get to Jessica King.
The old cliché is that men like to watch series about men, and women watch women. But honestly -- I’m not sure that’s true. Maybe in comedies, but I’m not sure about drama. Because that tends to ignore sex appeal. And, yes, women are just as guilty of succumbing to eye candy as men. Certainly a lot of the comments lamenting the cancellation of Endgame seemed to remark on Shawn Doyle’s hunkiness. And, hey, I’ll admit I seem to be occasionally mesmerized by Amy Price-Francis. But then, I’ve liked her in other things...but that didn’t mean I liked the things she was in. So I’m giving me the credit of saying there’s more at work here than simply being swayed by a pretty face.
I find King -- the character -- is evolving into an intriguing personality. Endgame’s Arkady Balagan came out of the gate as a colourful, eccentric personality…but, though subtler, I think King’s Jessica King is, in her own way, an equally intriguing and quirky TV hero.
Like with Balagan, Jessica King is basically supposed to be the smartest character in the room. Though a police procedural, this isn’t just about a squad of middling-to-bright detectives probing away at evidence till the truth is uncovered (ala Hawaii 5-0 or Bones or Law & Order). She is supposed to be the canny detective who sees what others don’t, infers what others won’t. Yet what makes a character interesting is flaws -- so in King we have a heroine who is smart…and knows she’s smart. She’s a bull in a china shop when it comes to others’ feelings (lacking “filters” on what she says). And as good as she is as a cop…her personal life is crumbling around her. In an episode where she looks after a co-worker’s teenage daughter -- and makes a royal mess of it -- the co-worker then remarks that people can’t be good at everything, and maybe King is a better cop than a mother. The devastatingly cutting effect of that comment on Jessica King can only be appreciated by viewers who know that she has been desperately trying to start a family over the last few episodes. In another episode, where her husband storms out on her, Price-Francis plays it beautifully with a combative defiance and wet eyes -- the character’s hard shell concealing a fragile interior.
I love the way Price-Francis plays interrogation scenes like walking a psychological type rope -- aloof yet compassionate to victims, cynical yet not belligerent toward suspects.
After a few episodes, I realized Jessica King was reminding me of Steve Wojeck.
In the 1960s TV series Wojeck, John Vernon gave English-Canada its first TV star portraying coroner Steve Wojeck. Wojeck was an unimpeachable hero who, nonetheless, was a difficult man, his very commitment to principals alienating those around him. He was tough, smart, and uncompromising and didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was compassionate towards the victims, the helpless, those who fell in the cracks of bureaucracy -- as King can be, King in some episodes standing up for victims shunted aside by others. Yet Wojeck could be bullishly obtuse when dealing with the sensibilities of his own colleagues. While most TV cops are portrayed as loyal defenders of the thin blue line, we are introduced to Jessica King after she has already brought down one crooked cop, while in a later episode, investigating another questionable cop, she blithely suggests to her cop husband (and the suspect’s partner) that he could wear a wire. Her husband (played by Gabriel Hogan) is horrified, saying no cop would ever work with him again if he did. A concern that clearly never occurred to Jessica King -- like Wojeck, more concerned about justice than inter-office politics.
There’s something just slightly -- off about Jessica King. As a character cheekily remarks in one episode: he assumed Jessica had been raised by wolves! She’s Trudeau’s quote about “reason over passion” given high heels and a badge. She’s mastered investigations…but is less polished when it comes to human relations. She’s icy and vulnerable all at the same time. And that makes her endearing, interesting, and very human.
If you want to talk “sophisticated” -- sure, Endgame has the more original premise, but I’d almost argue King is the one that is the more “sophisticated”, the one that will occasionally take you somewhere you didn’t expect -- emotionally, psychologically, philosophically. Both in its lead character and the messily ambiguous romantic triangle she’s caught in, and in its cases-of-the-week. Sure, a lot of the time it’s just a solid crime-detective series -- but then it’ll really step up, with a provocative story, an unexpected character, a nuanced guest star performance.
Am I reading more into the character than is there? Yeah, probably. But in her subtle way, Jessica King is as off-beat, as intriguing a character as Arkady Balagan…maybe even more so.
And maybe that’s why King got the nod for a second season.
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
July 29, 2011
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