Cardinal s1 ep 1; s1 ep 2

Algonquin Bay, Ontario, Canada. (Apparently a thinly-disguised North Bay.) A missing First Nations girl, Katie Pine, turns up dead and encased in a block of ice. This comes as little surprise to the detective who was originally looking into her disappearance, John Cardinal (Billy Campbell in fine form), and he’s put back on the case, with dark warnings to behave himself; we’re given to understand that he became obsessed with the investigation first time round. Cardinal is paired with Detective Lisa Delorme (Karine Vanasse, reliably good), who’s just transferred in from Financial Crimes.

In the first of this double-bill Cardinal pursues his belief that whoever killed Katie is, to use his word, a “repeater”, and he starts to review unsolved missing person investigations to see if he can find similar cases. Meantime Delorme is sent off to stay on top of Cardinal’s outstanding enquiry into a string of housebreakings, which – as yet, possibly? – don’t seem to be connected to the murder.

But in the final few minutes of the first episode the show moves up a gear. We discover that Delorme’s presence in the homicide squad isn’t because she fancied a career change: she’s been planted there by Musgrave, the unlikeable Witchfinder General of Internal Affairs, who thinks that Cardinal has a corrupt relationship with drug dealer Kyle Corbett. (And, from what we’ve seen, Cardinal is undoubtedly up to something in the background.) So Delorme is investigating a murder and her partner, at the same time. Awkward, potentially. And while she’s being lectured by Musgrave, Cardinal’s pursuit of one of his missing-person leads results in him finding the body of runaway teenager Todd Curry.

Which sets up the second episode nicely: Cardinal and Delorme head to Toronto for Todd’s post mortem, and discover that his head was wrapped in old-fashioned audio tape, which when analysed contains a faint recording of Katie Pine, pleading for her life, and an unknown man, presumably her killer, thus establishing a link between the murders. Meantime Delorme is visibly wrestling with the fact that Cardinal is more agreeable than the other men in her life – husband and Witchfinder – but nonetheless continues to investigate Cardinal, tailing him to a casino at which he appears to exchange black market chips for cash. He looks dirty, but I’d bet my mortgage that means he isn’t.

By the end of the second episode I was kind of hooked, I think, although with one or two reservations. Even leaving aside Cardinal’s obvious debt to Scandi-noir – the snow, the dead girl, the multiple plots – there’s much about this show which draws from the well-established procedural playbook. Cardinal and Delorme, to start with, tick quite a few of the maverick-TV-cop boxes. For Cardinal, there’s inevitably Secret Pain, personal (his hospitalised wife is bipolar), and professional (his thwarted investigation into Katie’s disappearance). He also has a dead raccoon in his crawl space. I have no idea whether that’s supposed to be a metaphor for something. Delorme, meantime, is supposedly trying for a baby with her husband, for whom I do not care at all. I suspect that before the end of the season he’ll be finding a hidden stash of birth control pills lying around. But Campbell and Vanessa are attractive and watchable actors who elevate the material. And in addition the show looks, well, amazing. The snow-covered, desolate landscapes are, I would guess, a gift to a cinematographer; and the shot of the block of ice containing the remains of Katie being hoisted out of the murder scene on a pulley isn’t one I’ll forget any time soon. So Unpopcult is in, with further reviews to follow.

Helix ep 1

Somebody’s doing something that defies the laws of God and nature at a scientific research facility in the Arctic. All those shots of the huge, super-snazzy base, surrounded by miles and miles of snow….Ah, ok, must be the X-Files. Although, actually – if something gruesome is happening while some incongruously easy listening plays on the soundtrack, doesn’t that mean it’s Lost? Even if somebody just said “frakked-up” – I mean, it can’t be Battlestar Galactica. Oh, no, hold on – there’s black goo! People are infected with black goo! It’s the X-Files again!

With monkeys instead of aliens?!

Who knows. It would be daft – and incorrect – to pretend that Helix is doing anything new. From the opening seconds of the pilot until its final scene, it’s obvious how much of its look, plot, characters and even soundtrack have been influenced by some of the stupendously successful genre shows and films that came before it. And not just the ones I’ve mentioned, either.

It can’t even claim originality points for painting its heroes, the field officers of the CDC, as the only thing standing between humanity and the apocalypse, since that mantle is accorded to every team of whatever-job-you-likes confronted with a viral/alien/miscellaneous world-ending threat in every sci-fi show/film ever. No disrespect to the actual CDC who do essential and I would think incredibly difficult work in real life, but in fictional drama even the postal service can save humanity so you maybe don’t need the 2 Masters degrees and PhD that young Dr Sarah has in order to prevent armageddon on tv.

You do need nice hair though, which Dr Sarah has. And a noble, handsome genius of a boss in the shape of Billy Campbell. Who has an ex-wife who slept with his brother who might be patient zero in the viral outbreak that gets the CDC called in in the first place… no, come on, bear with me, I promise, it’s not the Young and the Restless. The thing is, I know how all of this sounds on paper. And that’s without even mentioning the army fellow called Major Sergio Balleseros who I spent the whole show thinking of as NotSeve Ballesteros. Or the bizarre, snowy graveyard of dead but upright REDACTED. Or the stupidity of these so-called geniuses who don’t lock the sodding place down as soon as they get there and keep wandering off alone into deserted corners of the huge, creepy facility about to be the centre of the scariest outbreak of anything they’ve ever seen where the BOGEYMAN CAN GET THEM. Trust me – I know how it all sounds.

But, watching it, none of that really mattered – I was too busy freaking out at one fright after another. This was fast, frantic and frightening sci-fi, handling both the ridiculous and the routine tropes of the genre with panache and commitment, and even sprinkling a few potentially intelligent (if not exactly subtle) points about unregulated scientific research in there to boot. The music was annoying and the dialogue far from Shakespearian, but this first episode took itself a lot less seriously than Fringe ever did and I enjoyed it a lot more as a result, even if my neighbours must’ve wondered what all the screaming was about. Like many genre fans, I’ve seen a lot of sci-fi over the years and become harder to surprise or please as a result, but I really, really liked Helix. I don’t think I’ll be doing weekly reviews but I’ll be watching again.

Public Service Announcement 6 of 2014: Mr Selfridge, Helix, The Musketeers

*picks up baton*

imageThe trickle of post-Christmas tv is turning into a stream, as this weekend brings us two very different, but equally cosy period dramas with the return of ITV1’s Mr Selfridge and the debut of BBC1’s The Musketeers – both set to duke it out for ratings supremacy at 9pm tomorrow (Sunday) night.

Mr Selfridge is a strange one: the first season of the “shipping and shopping” drama was a demented mix of the amazing (Henri, Miss Mardle, Lady Mae) and the appalling (anyone with “Selfridge” in their name), worth watching principally for gorgeous Gregory Fitoussi although the rest of the supporting cast were great when they got a look in. Unfortunately, every time Mr Selfridge himself or his love interest/wife/family popped up (which was a lot) the show turned teeth-grindingly annoying. Since his name is in the title, though, sadly the focus is likely to remain on “Harry”; the second season kicks off five years on, with Mr S pining for the estranged Mrs S and the kids, while Europe hovers on the brink of war. I’m not looking forward to any of that. We are promised the return of Monsieur Fitoussi at some point, although goodness knows when that’ll be – advance reports (ok, unpopculter e) indicate it might not be in the first ep, so that’ll make sitting through it a challenge. But come on, Fitoussi fans, we can get through it together. I’ll review it here as soon as I can, but if you want a head start, the first ep is already available on iTunes.

imageAnyone more inclined towards the swashbuckling side of the shipping genre, however, may want to try out the BBC’s new take on the decidedly old story of The Three Musketeers. Starring various modestly attractive young men, it looks suspiciously like the love child of Merlin and Robin Hood with Atlantis acting as midwife, so I doubt it’ll tax anyone’s brain cells too much but it’ll probably be an inoffensive watch. And Peter Capaldi’s in it – as that famous Scotsman Cardinal Richelieu – so it can’t be all bad.

imageIf we’re going back in time with Sunday’s tv, though, Monday brings us right back to the frightening future with new science-fiction drama Helix on Channel 5 at 10pm. It doesn’t sound remotely original, of course: a deadly virus breaks out at a remote facility, a bunch of scientists travel out to investigate, they find more than they bargained for… so far, so Syfy and, depending on who you listen to, it’s either a worthy addition to the X-Files and Fringe branch of creepy, clever sci-fi, or it’s idiotic nonsense. I have a suspicion it’ll be a bit of both, but the exec producer is Ron “Battlestar Galactica” Moore and I like the look of the trailer (and of Billy Campbell, on leading man duties), so I’ll be giving it a go anyway. Review of the first ep will be up here in due course.