After a shaky start, Nine’s new mystery drama- soap Canal Road may yet deliver, writes Graeme Blundell
‘ ALL we have is language and depth of character, the ability to take you through a life,’’ crime great Dennis Lehane ( Mystic River ) once said of the mystery writer’s craft. Canal Road , Nine’s new medical- legal drama, lacked all three of Lehane’s benchmarks when it opened last week. If it had been a novel, the reader would not have turned to the second page. The show may aspire to what Lehane called ‘‘ fiction of mortal event’’ — stories in which criminal stuff happens and the price is high — but, initially at least, it was all over the place.
Another character- based ensemble drama exploring tightly knit tales of squalid yet resonant events, it presents a rather unconvincing medical and legal advisory centre in Melbourne. According to the promotion, this is where the lives of inner- city professionals and their patients entwine in stories of mystery and medical intrigue. Canal Road is obviously genre oriented, with touches of medical shows, legal dramas, soapystyle domestic entanglements and the inevitable police procedural- style investigations.
But to begin with it simply plopped down some of the usual suspects, all a touch wayward and unfulfilled, injected them with conflict and dreams of happiness, and watched as the bubbles burst.
The characters are too young, ethereal and impossibly handsome. And in the first episode, the tone, texture and accomplishment were all too wobbly to kick off a new series. The acting was tentative, nervous and often pedestrian.
The show simply didn’t create a believable world, unlike the opening episodes of recent series such as Underbelly , The Circuit or East West 101 . In those shows you knew quickly where you stood and what you could expect. Canal Road had me thinking of the less successful MDA and even Chances as it pottered around its pretty locations looking for an identity.
‘‘ Style is knowing what show you are in,’’ acting great John Gielgud famously said. Last week, Canal Road seemed neither police procedural nor medical drama.
But judging from the more successful second episode this week, it may yet prove to be an engaging mystery soapie with elements of both cop and doctor shows and a touch of the legal thriller.
The mystery, which took up most of the first episode, has to do with the death of the wife and son of psychiatrist Spencer McKay ( an unpersuasive Paul Leyden). When confronted by the killer, he sets out on a journey of revenge that will implicate everyone else in the show.
This was handled clumsily and
little hysterically. How do the other characters tolerate this shambling man desperate with grief? Would anyone really stomach his sullenness?
We know this will be the recurring big plotline. I suspect we are in for one of those series where the central plot meanders, vanishes for long periods, then returns to make baffling leaps.
Violent deaths will follow and lots of racy sexual escapades with lashings of nudity. People’s pasts will be a theme, possibly false or misunderstood. There will be haunting old secrets, terrible misfortune and impossible redemption. It could be great fun.
McKay is still hunting his killers this week, as he receives security camera photos from an anonymous source. Women may love this leading man but the voice is off- putting; there’s something too precious about him.
As an actor he’s out of kilter with most of the others, too; it’s as if he’s thinking too hard, stuck in moments looking for meaning while the plot has moved on.
Happily, most of this week’s episode focuses on community corrections officer Holly Chong ( Peta Sergeant), forced to confront the fears of her past when she becomes the target of a psychotic stalker who just may be one of her parolees.
The writing is tight and concentrated, and Sergeant announces herself as a great new
presence on weekly television: vulnerable, tightly coiled and seemingly with no drama school baggage. She is one of those rare actors who looks as if she has come straight from the street, rough edges intact. And while the bow- lipped brunette does not trade on her obvious sexuality, she appears to be simultaneously mocking and pouting, like Angelina Jolie.
Unlike some of her colleagues, she has a natural actor’s instinct of knowing where the camera is and what it is doing in relation to her. TV acting requires a spatial awareness, a sense of the three dimensions of each camera shot, especially in a show as franticly styled as this.
These days many directors are more than capable of copying TV’s Jerry Bruckheimerinspired look, with its twitchy camera aesthetic, but seem to have little time for the actors. In the group scenes actors are poorly choreographed and often seem unmotivated in their actions.
The new style of camera movement is difficult for actors, who conventionally have little opportunity for rehearsal. The mise en scene is not quite a blur, but a buzz of steady stimulation, a ride of zooms and pans, focus pulls and moving camera shots rocketing the viewer around the few static sequences.
It’s a trippy, speedy style, well- handled here by camera boss Jaems Grant and director Kevin Carlin. Only actors who think like technicians will survive the wasteland of multiple cameras and their apparatus, scurrying technicians and shifting photographic points- of- view.
The women in this ensemble seem more capable than the men; hopefully the series will be dominated by them and the demands of their workaholic characters for empowerment and good shagging.
Canal Road is edging towards becoming a more appealing commercial package, a pacy social serial, nicely complicated and diffuse.
This second episode develops the necessary melodrama, the creeping hysteria, and the well defined villains and heroes that make for pleasurable viewing, even when the situations depicted are unpleasant and confronting.
The problem is, as is so often the case with local drama, the viewer can still hear a small voice echoing Hitchcock’s words that all that matters is the script, the script and the script.
Canal Road, Wednesday, 9.30pm, Nine.
Edge of hysteria: Diana Glenn and Paul Leyden in Canal Road ; the cast, right