What I’m Watching—DUE SOUTH

Given all the turbulence taking place in the world today I find myself longing for comfort and security…even on TV. Gone are the days when I enjoyed morally ambiguous heroes. Now I want a white hat to cheer for, a good guy, someone willing to stand up for the people and yet uphold the law…all while serving justice.

No television character does that better than the always-true Canadian Benton Fraser, played with aplomb by Paul Gross in the ground-breaking Canadian comedy-drama Due South. Originally a fish-out-of-water story, the series morphed over its 4-season run, sometimes bordering on farce, but never ventured far from its core—a feel good cop show/buddy comedy with an underlying strain of morality.

From 1994 through 1999 fans of the show could follow the exploits of the ever-upright Constable Fraser of the RCMP who, unfailingly, did his duty—not just to his always-impeccable red-serge uniform but to the people. Personal or professional consequences never mattered to the erstwhile Mountie who, in one memorable episode explained with infinite patience that “No we don’t ‘always get’ our man,” elaborating that the line was Hollywood hyperbole.

Paired with a slick and streetwise Chicago cop, Detective Raymond Vecchio (played by David Marciano), and accompanied by his loyal canine-companion Diefenbaker (a deaf, lip-reading half-wolf named after a former Prime Minister), Canada’s finest lawman proved time and again to be an unrelenting force for good.

Created by Oscar, Emmy, and Gemini-winning writer/producer/director Paul Haggis, Due South is surprisingly smart for a show that initially relied upon the popular stereotypes of Canadian and American ‘cultural’ difference for its humour. Much like Haggis’s other popular TV series, Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001), Due South inspired a devoted following (fan conventions—named RCW 139, after a license plate number that repeatedly appeared in the show—are a common occurrence) and created an iconic, aspirational hero.

The show launched Paul Gross into stardom (I cannot recommend his series Slings and Arrows, about the unorthodox antics of a Stratford Festival-type Shakespeare theatre, highly enough! It is smart, funny, and amazingly insightful, if a bit dark) and provided a late-career boost to series co-star Gordon Pinsent, who played Sergeant Bob Fraser—the hero’s father (and the ghost of the same) constantly offering unsolicited advice that varies from ‘occasionally insightful’ through ‘outright ridiculous’.

High profile guest appearances, especially the repeated cameos of comedy legend Leslie Nielson (as Sergeant Buck Frobisher) elevate an already top-notch cast. Look for Al Waxman, Milton Berle, Steve Smith, Colm Feore, Jennifer Dale, Patrick McKenna, Carrie-Anne Moss, amongst the more recognizable faces.

Upon its debut Due South became the first Canadian-made series to air in ‘prime-time’ on a major U.S. network. CBS, however, could not decide what to do with the show and cancelled it after airing the first 24-episodes. Luckily international popularity, especially in Canada and the United Kingdom, kept the series going…briefly. After a one-year hiatus, while producers secured investors, Due South returned to the air in 1997 and remained there until 1999.

The program remains one of the highest rated TV series broadcast on a Canadian network (it was nominated for 53 Gemini Awards and won 15 in four years, including: Best Dramatic TV series in 1995, 1996, and 1997; Best Actor in a Leading Dramatic Role for Paul Gross in 1995 and 1996; and Best Writing in a Dramatic Series for Paul Haggis also in 1995 and 1996). It became one of first non-British shows to air in prime-time on BBC One. British newspaper The Guardian even labelled it as one of TV’s most underrated programs. 

Like many of Canada’s more ‘unique’ exports, Due South received a warm reception in America. Though it won critical acclaim, the show never became a ‘hit’ south of the border.

The show’s premise isn’t something commonly found on U.S. TV: Benton Fraser, an unarmed lawman (he carries a gun but isn’t licensed to load it with bullets outside Canada) and with no ‘official’ jurisdiction, sets out to solve his father’s murder using nothing more than unfailing optimism, a strong moral compass, and a wealth of surprising knowledge gleaned from his grandparent’s library. In the process our kind-hearted hero cleans up Chicago’s streets (often literally).

Exiled from his homeland for exposing a politically embarrassing scandal, Constable Fraser tries, with varying degrees of success, to bring small-town Canadian sensibilities to the big city…usually in the most polite, deferential, and humorous way possible.

Inspirational and (surprisingly) intellectual, the series is unapologetically Canadian—which is ironic given Benton Fraser is, like every good Canuck, invariably polite. Almost every episode sees him utter “Thank you kindly”; mutter a bewildered “Oh dear” when facing life and death situations; and forever struggling to find the right thing to say to friends and coworkers, often settling on a hopeful ‘Understood’.

Filmed almost entirely in Toronto (the wilderness scenes were often shot in Alberta’s Banff National Park), Due South highlighted Canadian content and/or history with skill and subtlety. Canadian music was showcased throughout, including artists like: Sarah McLachlan, The Headstones, Loreena McKennit, and Colin James. The series even ends with the hero setting out in search of the ‘lost’ Franklin expedition—a cultural reference known nationwide—to the musical accompaniment of “Northwest Passage”, a popular Canadian folk song immortalizing the doomed explorer and his men, fittingly covered by star Paul Gross. 

Give it a watch. Fun and family-friendly entertainment is hard to find.

Posted on: June 20, 2020, by :