Canadian TV, like the people of Canada, is incredibly nice and polite. Almost a trademark, it lacks the gloss and sense of razzamatazz found in US TV, but makes up for it with sly quirkiness. There aren't a lot of Canadian shows that are well-known internationally, but those that are feel distinctly Canadian. Due South, Corner Gas, Kim's Convenience, Degrassi, and Kids In The Hall are the best-known exports and are each known for having a pleasant demeanour.
But recently there has been a shift in Canadian TV – it's been getting pretty dark, too.
New shows like Cardinal and Mary Kills People have caught viewers' attention, blending the elements that people love about Canadian TV – its earthy and relatable attitude – with an underlying darkness that is similar to Scandi Noir shows. It seems that under the surface of the down-to-earth, friendly Canadians lie some really dark thoughts waiting to be expressed.
It's not as if there haven't been dark elements to Canadian TV dramas before. After all, conflict and the exploration of the darker sides of humanity are the cornerstone of any drama. But with Cardinal, it felt like it was overtly there on screen for us to revel in. Scandi dramas like The Killing and The Bridge were clearly an inspiration for Cardinal, bringing a hero with considerable baggage to the investigation of a serious crime.
Cardinal, based on a series of books by Canadian novelist Giles Blunt, stars Billy Campbell as the recently demoted police detective John Cardinal. While investigating a new murder case that might be the work of a serial killer, Cardinal is assigned a new partner who has been tasked to keep an eye on him as part of a corruption investigation. There are internal suspicions that Cardinal might have conspired with a local drug dealer to help him evade arrest.
When Canadian critic Rob Thomas wrote about the debut of Cardinal, he was quick to point out the debt Cardinal owes to its Canadian location: "The series is Canadian to its chilled bones, set in the frigid northern Ontario town of Sudbury, where people speak in low, polite tones and clutch their coats closer to keep out the wind."
Seasons 1 - 3 of Cardinal are streaming at SBS On Demand:
Mary Kills People
So often, the darkness in a TV show can feel a little fake and confected, but in Mary Kills People it's very real. This isn't the sort of darkness one finds in a staged crime story, but rather comes from the all-too-real issue of human suffering caused by terminal illness.
We are introduced to Dr Mary Harris (Caroline Dhavernas), an ER doctor who, out of hours, assists terminally ill patients to end their lives. It’s an exceptionally emotional and difficult subject matter to deal with, but the focus of the show isn’t to dwell on the pain and misery that forces a sick person into taking their own lives.
Rather, the show is more interested in exploring the difficulties Mary faces engaging in this work off the books – cleaning up evidence of her involvement, hiding her actions from police and keeping her work secret from her own family members. If anything, the show is more interested in what it means to go rogue, in offering a service that the government has outlawed, than it is in the actual act of assisted suicide.
While not laugh-out-loud funny, the show revels in the dark humour of watching Mary and her partner making bad choices and doing the wrong thing at every step, as they struggle to avoid being discovered. Despite being such a dark show, Mary Kills People retains a distinct Canadian flavour. None of the characters are deliberately hostile to one another, but the tension comes from difference and in trying to buck the system (with the best of intentions).
Seasons 1 and 2 Mary Kills People are now streaming at SBS On Demand: