Thursday, May 7, 2009

DVD Review: In A Word--Intelligence

By Wesley Britton

On April 29, 2008, Acorn Media released the first season of Canada’s Intelligence on DVD in the Region 1 format. Finally, those of us south of the border got our first chance to experience one of the finest espionage-oriented television series ever produced. On April 14, 2009, Acorn released season two, and I’m impatiently waiting its arrival in the Netflicks catalogue. At the same time, I’m wondering—why can’t American networks do something on this level of, well, intelligence?

The multi-layered program debuted as a two hour movie in November 2005 and ran as a series from October 10, 2006 to December 10, 2007 on the CBC, roughly Canada’s equivalent of the BBC. Producer and writer Chris Haddock created Intelligence, describing the show as "half gangster, half espionage," and that’s a fair summation. That is, if you can accept mobsters without Italian accents and no desire for bloodletting. The gangster half of the show revolved around Ian Tracy as Jimmy Reardon, a third-generation Vancouver crime boss overseeing his family's legacy in shipping, money laundering, and pot smuggling. The espionage half centered on Klea Scott as Mary Spalding, daughter of an Army intelligence officer and head of Vancouver's Organized Crime Unit. A black woman operating in a male-dominated realm, she wanted to move upstairs to become chief of he Asia Pacific Region of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS). (Scott had earlier portrayed the co-starring role of FBI agent Emma Hollis on the third season of Chris Carter's Millennium).

Throughout the two season run, Spalding and Reardon had parallel storylines, with both their criminal and law enforcement activities complicated by rivalries with their respective competitors, most notably American agencies or gangs seeking control over Canadian interests. In the pilot, Spalding—as savvy, crafty, and strong-willed a spymaster as has ever been seen on either the small or large screen—began building her own independent network of informants by crafting an uneasy alliance with Reardon. She offered him immunity from prosecution in exchange for his becoming an informant on major criminal activity, notably gun smuggling like ships in Panama carrying arms destined for the Congo. At the same time, Spalding planted a dancer in Reardon’s club to spy on him while she established a relationship with the head of an escort service. And, after discovering one of her Chinese translators is a mole, Spalding turned him into her own double-agent.

Meanwhile, the calm and non-violent Reardon works with as much diplomacy as he can muster to avoid gang wars with two rising groups, the “Bikers” and “The Disciples.” In his view, there are drugs he doesn’t want to touch anyway, there is enough territory for everyone to have their own piece of the pie, and he is hoping to be out of the criminal business in five years. He has his own informer inside the Vancouver police department, Rene Desjardins (Michael Eklund). Reardon tries to appease his ambitious but reckless brother Michael (Bernie Coulson) who wants his own place in the sun. On top of all this, Reardon is constantly dogged by his neurotic ex-wife, Francine Reardon (Camille Sullivan) who threatens to bring his empire down. Neither Spalding nor Reardon know it, but American law enforcement is working to get Reardon on U.S. soil so they can bust him while the American DEA is using a heroin smuggler in much the same way as Spalding is working Reardon.

Throughout season one, Spalding also learns her agency—indeed all of Canadian intelligence—is riddled with moles as well as subordinates who’d like to see her go, especially the vicious veteran intelligence agent Ted Altman (Matt Frewer), her scheming second-in-command. (Frewer was once a pop cultural icon in the form of “Max headroom” during the 1980s.) Along the way, Spalding learns just how far the tentacles of the U.S. reach into Canadian intelligence. This is called "deep integration" of U.S and Canadian political and economic systems which included American intelligence agents infiltrating Canadian institutions. In particular, when Spalding began investigating the Blackmire group, a corporation out to steal Canada’s fresh-water resources, she ultimately discovered the organization was a front for the CIA. Oh, lest we forget, the Chinese and Vietnamese have their own plans as well . . .

If all this seems like much too much for any one series to carry, Intelligence was driven by well-crafted scripts by Chris Haddock who carefully blended in new characters and developments from episode to episode. Using a snowballing menu of perspectives, his storylines unfolded in well-balanced shifts from the criminal machinations to the turf wars inside Canadian law enforcement. Better, every character was fully realized, totally believable, and, especially in the case of Spalding, almost jaw-dropping in their abilities to maintain their own balancing acts. All this overlapping of criminal conspiracies and espionage in the plots drew, in part, from Haddock’s notion that drugs are the crucial modern industry. In his view, information--the buying and selling of “intel” on everything from heroin trafficking to international terrorism--is the most addictive and profitable drug of all.

While it was on the air, Intelligence developed a strong fan base, received critical favor, was sold to 143 foreign markets, and earned 11 Gemini nominations. However, at the end of the second year, citing poor ratings, the CBC did not schedule the show for a third season. Haddock publicly claimed the network was responding to pressures from higher-ups who didn’t like dramas of this kind on the network. He backed his point by noting, after initial interest from the company, the CBC was noticeably unsupportive of the series with minimal promotions throughout the two year run. This makes me wonder if Canadians have other infiltrations to worry about—perhaps the very sort of thinking that has doomed many a U.S. classic has moved across the border. Along with our CIA, perhaps they’re getting our breed of network executives. Too bad. It’s not often we get something like Intelligence, but at least we Yanks can now at least appreciate shows we knew nothing about during the original broadcast.

If I haven’t made it clear—don’t miss Intelligence! It is something special for anyone who ever appreciated The Sandbaggers, Danger Man, or, well, few shows are like it. With any luck, more in its mold will be coming—and would be most welcome from any country of origin.

I hereby thank David Spencer from the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers for calling my attention to Intelligence as part of my research for The Encyclopedia of TV Spies.

More reviews by Dr. Wesley Britton are posted at—

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