August 12, 2000
by Brent Ledger
Set in Toronto, not London, using two cops, not one, and real Canadian storylines,
Chasing Cain sets out to rival a hit British show
Executive producer Bernard Zuckerman stresses the importance of storytelling.
Peter Outerbridge, actor, Jerry Ciccoritti, director, and actor Alberta Watson on set of
upcoming Canadian mystery series hopeful, Chasing Cain
Earlier this week, near Roncesvalles Avenue, a doughty band of Canadians dared the
impossible. They tried to create a Canadian mystery series to rival Prime Suspect.
At first glance, Chasing Cain is nothing like the brilliant British series that launched
Helen Mirren to wider fame. The Canadian series is set in Toronto, not London, and
stars two cops, not one: Toronto homicide detectives Bob Kazlowski and Denise
McGoogan (Peter Outerbridge, Alberta Watson).
But according to producer Bernard Zukerman, the projected series resembles Prime Suspect
in its allegiance to long-format stories, metropolitan settings and gritty straight-
ahead storytelling. No gimmicks, says Zukerman. No mountie in Chicago à la Due South.
No dusty old cases à la Cold Squad. Just stories ripped from the headlines, à la one
of his favourite shows, Law & Order.
During the shooting of the first episode, Zukerman was ecstatic with early results. The
Roncesvalles location was giving him the urban feel he wanted for a series whose
stories are largely inspired by real Canadian homicide cases. "In a perfect world I
see this franchise of doing two or three of these every year," says Zukerman.
He is best known for real-life crime thrillers like Love And Hate (about Colin Thatcher,
the Saskatchewan cabinet minister who murdered his former wife) and Conspiracy of
Silence (about the northern Manitoba town that kept quiet about the murderers of
Helen Betty Osborne, a young native girl). But Zukerman hopes the first episode of
Chasing Cain, which airs sometime next year on CBC, will spawn a series. Two other
episodes featuring the same two leads have been scripted and await the CBC's go-
But can Canadians even produce a murder mystery? The CBC and CTV present cop shows in
abundance -- the aforementioned Cold Squad, Due South as well as Da Vinci's Inquest --
and Global joins the fray this January with Blue Murder. But the cosier genre of the
mystery, wherein the quirks of the detective are as important as clues to the crime,
seems beyond us.
Bill Mustos, a CTV vice-president, noticed the gap when he arrived at what was then Baton
Broadcasting in March, 1997, and immediately started to develop a number of Canadian
mysteries and thrillers. That initiative bore fruit last year when CTV aired the
fictional, The Girl Next Door, starring Henry Czerny and Polly Shannon, and the true-
life story, Murder Most Likely (about an RCMP undercover agent who was accused of
throwing his wife off their balcony), starring Paul Gross. The Girl Next Door picked
up a couple of Gemini nominations, and Murder Most Likely pulled an impressive 1.2
million viewers, even up against fierce American competition in the last week of
November sweeps. Encouraged, CTV repeated The Girl Next Door and aired three original
mysteries last April: an adaptation of Anna Porter's The Bookfair Murders and two
television movies based on Gail Bowen's popular series of murder mysteries featuring
cop-turned-academic Joanne Kilbourn. With Wendy Crewson (The Sue Rodriguez Story) in
the lead, both mysteries drew more than a million viewers. CTV has two more in
production and another two in development. "We knew that by picking an author who was
highly regarded both domestically and internationally we could begin to build a
franchise," says Mustos. The first two Bowen mysteries have been sold to the Lifetime
channel in the U.S.
Succeed or fail, both series will certainly be Canadian. There's a kindness, a caring and
an earnestness about them that smacks of Canadians at their peacekeeper best.
Raised on British models, we've come to expect a certain kind of satisfaction from our
mysteries. From Lord Peter Wimsey to Cracker, the most popular detectives are
eccentric but huggably human. Think grumpy Inspector Morse with his operas and scotch
or P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh with his penchant for poetry.
Crewson's Kilbourn seems pleasant, but a little too blandly Canadian to compete in those
leagues. A caring mother, she's determined, spunky, moral, but not the fierce
obsessive we've come to expect. The best that can be said of her is that she has
Mustos is convinced Crewson has what it takes to hold an audience because she's possessed
of that enduringly Canadian attribute, empathy. "She conveys an intelligence and a
maturity, but also an empathy so that when she's investigating a murder you actually
feel that her character really cares."
Compassion may or may not be crucial to the job description, but character certainly is.
PBS has been running mysteries for more than 20 years, says WNED's program director,
Ron Santora, and the series that fare best with audiences focus on character. "If a
mystery is particularly bloody or gruesome, it seems to turn people off," says
Santora. "And when the mystery spends more time on the plot and less time on
character development, it doesn't do as well."
Tell that to Zukerman. Listening to him, you'd swear he was talking about a soapbox, not
an entertainment. He stresses the importance of storytelling, but also the necessity
of tackling issues, as he did in Million Dollar Babies, the docudrama about the
Dionne quintuplets. Zukerman wants to tackle everything from legal aid to the decline
of the medical system. While shooting the first episode of Chasing Cain, he had two
hospital scenes rewritten to incorporate some of the issues surrounding health-care
delivery in Ontario.
"I hate the kind of filmmaking where the issue is up-front in your face and the
storytelling is secondary," says Zukerman. "I love pure entertainment, but I think
the best shows have more layers to them."
For the sake of the murder mystery in Canada, let's hope detectives Kazlowski and
McGoogan have several more layers, too.
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