Ah, our friends to the north. Rosy cheeks, cute toques, friendly and cooperative.
Durham County, returning Sunday on the hard-to-find ION Network, will erase those stereotypes forever. It might be the grimmest thing on TV, and that includes HBO and Showtime.
But what fascinating grimness, as the series, imported from Canada, plumbs the complex, dark psychology of a detective in the throes of middle-aged turmoil, while examining desperate lives in a desolate suburbia that doesn't have any of the genteel trappings of the Housewives' Wisteria Lane, or any other middle-class community in the long history of TV.
There is a region called Durham just east of Toronto, but this isn't it, says Hugh Dillon, who plays homicide detective Mike Sweeney. The series is shot in Quebec, and "the locations are all over the place. It's a fictional place. It just kind of has a real name."
Giant, high-tension power-line towers dominate the dismal landscape, looming repeatedly in shots and inspiring dread in the same way the whispering fir trees did in creepy Twin Peaks years ago. But where the menace of the trees was mysterious and beautifully supernatural, the towers are stark. They imply unrelenting threat.
Durham County popped up on ION in September, overshadowed by the spate of big-network fall premieres. ION will repeat the first "season" of the show, six hours, Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight, and it's worth recording if there's room on the DVR. The new season, another six episodes, starts with a two-hour installment Sunday at 9 p.m. Future hour-long segments go Sundays at 10 p.m.
The first season featured Canadian Justin Louis in a truly chilling performance as a murderer. The new one features Texan Michelle Forbes, who most recently turned things topsy-turvy as Maryann the Maenad in HBO's True Blood. This time, she plays a psycho psychiatrist.
The Philadelphia ION affiliate, WPPX, broadcasts on digital channel 31 and can be found in most Comcast systems on cable channel 61. ION used to be PAX, a Christian-based outfit that specialized in warm and fuzzy family fare. Durham County, which ran originally on Canadian pay TV, is part of the company's effort - which includes heavy play of CBS crime show reruns like Criminal Minds and NCIS - to move in a different direction.
American TV shows have been made in Canada for years, thanks, among other things, to tax credits, favorable currency fluctuations and a seemingly endless supply of beautiful and moderately talented young actors that's wildly out of proportion to the country's population, about one-tenth that of the United States.
But, until recently, the last show made in Canada for Canadians and imported directly to a major American network was Due South, an agreeable Mountie show with a comic element, set in Chicago but shot in Toronto. It was a joint production of CBS and Canada's CTV, airing in the mid-'90s.
In the summer of 2008, CBS ended the Canadian drought, picking up Flashpoint, about a high-powered Canadian SWAT team, starring Enrico Colantoni (a Toronto native best known here for Veronica Mars and Just Shoot Me), American Amy Jo Johnson, who began her career as the pink Power Ranger and . . . Hugh Dillon.
Though it appeared first in the United States, Flashpoint actually came along after Durham County, which just wrapped its third six-episode season last week. Flashpoint begins shooting its third season Jan. 10. It's a juggling act for Dillon.
"I have no idea why they like me," says Dillon, known as much as a rock musician (lead singer in the Headstones) as an actor. He is certainly not the only Canadian hard-guy actor (contemporaries Keanu Reeves and Brendan Fraser come to mind; older stars include Raymond Massey and, yes, William Shatner). "I'm just looking for work, and I've been very lucky."
Tough, bald, willing to bend the law, Dillon's Detective Sweeney bears some resemblance to The Shield's Vic Mackey, but Durham County pays much more attention to Sweeney's family life than The Shield did to Mackey's. Audrey Sweeney is battling cancer and her husband's disaffectedness. Their teenage daughter, Sadie, struggles to find her place in the suburban anomie. Helene Joy, an Australian emigre, and Quebecer Laurence Leboeuf both shimmer in their roles.
"This is one of three Canadian shows that we have picked up," says Leslie Chesloff, ION executive vice president of programming and former boss at WPHL here. "You look wherever you can get quality shows."
Importing shows is cheaper than starting from scratch, since somebody else has gone through the development stage and the series has already demonstrated appeal. "You get a proven winner. That's the key," she said.
Durham County has won a passel of Gemini Awards (the Canadian Emmys), including ones for director Holly Dale and writer Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik. Surprisingly, for such a dark series filled with so much aggression and a first scene in which a voyeur witnesses the murder of two pretty girls in their school uniforms, virtually the entire creative team is female.
Maybe it's time to reassess some gender, as well as geographical, stereotypes.