due south


There’s been a lot of doom and gloom in the Geek Girl columns of late.  I blame some of that on winter TV. Networks seem to run shows that are darker and more depressing during the winter.  This isn’t to say that I couldn’t find some happier fare if I just set my mind to looking for it, but so much of it seems so inane that I end up losing interest pretty easily.

One of the things that I do seem to end up watching frequently are cop shows and procedural dramas. That’s no surprise, given the columns about “Castle” and “Elementary” earlier.  It’s not a preference that I trouble myself over too much.  I’ve also established that I am a fan of the genre blender.  Mash-ups, especially those that seem unlikely but still manage to work have a way of drawing me in like nothing else.

The first cop show that I really got into was “Due South”.  It was before I’d heard much about that whole stereotype of Canadians being polite.  The show played on that idea to great comedic effect. I admit, I kind of started watching it because it had Leslie Nielsen on a couple of episodes.  I was most familiar with Nielsen from the “Naked Gun” movies, though I wouldn’t get to see any of the “Police Squad!” episodes until the complete series of that was released on DVD.

The “Naked Gun” movies were silly and fun and not necessarily one of my favorite things to watch. “The Forbidden Planet”, however, was very high on my list of favorite things to watch.  So, I wasn’t going into “Due South” completely blind.  Part of me understood that Leslie Nielsen could play serious roles and theoretically be quite good at them.  The rest of me was completely astonished that this silly, grandfatherly man whom I had grown accustomed to in slapstick, throwaway movies could play such a convincingly tough and damaged character as Sgt. Duncan “Buck” Frobisher.  He was practically the man’s man to end all men’s men. This was a man you could see surviving in some of the toughest places to survive on Earth, displaying the kinds of skills that would probably make Bear Grylls bow down and call him Yoda.

Even peppered with characters like that, “Due South” was not the kind of show that was unrelentingly dark.  In the pilot episode, the main character, Constable Benton Fraser gets sent to work with the Canadian Consulate in Chicago.  He ends up wasting most of a day at the Consulate holding the door for the steady stream of people coming in and out of the building.  His unfailing politeness often land him in similar situations.

Constable Fraser is an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who initially comes to Chicago to solve the murder of his father.  He gets assigned to work with Detective Raymond Vecchio in the Chicago Police Department.  As they investigate, Fraser, played by Paul Gross, never appears in anything but his perfectly neat, spotlessly clean RCMP uniform.  He is also always accompanied by his part-dog part-wolf, Diefenbaker.  While Fraser and Vecchio solve the murder, the upshoot of that investigation is that Constable Benton Fraser essentially gets himself kicked completely out of Canada.

Thus, the TV series is set up to give viewers a peek at what happens when a Chicago Detective with a bit of a slobbish demeanor and an impeccably neat Constable of the RCMP end up working together.  It’s, of course, a fish out of water story. The real delight in the series is how stereotypes of both Canadians and Americans are played upon.

“Due South” had truly funny moments, and it had a lot of them.  Vecchio has to deal with the constant scrutiny that comes with entering a room next to a man like Benton Fraser and finding out that, when it comes right down to it, the guy in the bright red coat and the funny looking hat will draw more respect from Vecchio’s fellow Americans automatically than Vecchio will, even after showing his badge.  Fraser, in return, has to deal with a world where basic manners are either outright ignored or forgotten entirely.  People do not say please or thank-you as a matter of course in the good ol’ US of A, and  Fraser was often heard to utter “Thank-you kindly” to people during the show. It was not always the gentle expression of gratitude you might initially assume.

Paul Gross played Constable Fraser as the ultimate straight-man.  He was stoic and upright.  As an officer of the RCMP he carried himself with dignity and let himself be an example to the people around him.  He was a more palatable and much, much smarter live action Dudley Do-Right.  I believe that there were a few jokes that implied as much actually written in to the show.  It became an ongoing gag that no matter what happened, Fraser’s uniform remained as perfectly tidy as it had been at the start of the episode.  He was not only unflappable, he remained thoroughly unruffled.

You might expect a show with a set-up like that to really vilify the Chicago Cop.  That wasn’t the case, either. David Marciano gave Detective Raymond Vecchio an everyman quality.  He wasn’t perfect, by any means (not that Fraser was, either), but he wasn’t incompetent or stupid, either.  Vecchio was treated in the scripts like he was a good cop and a capable one, just one who used entirely different methods than Constable Fraser. Vecchio was the street-wise guy who knew how to navigate the city and, for the most part, the people in it. And, yes, Vecchio got exasperated with what a goody two-shoes Fraser could be and that exasperation was completely, totally justified.

One of the most memorable things about the show was the surreal amount of information Fraser could glean from either smelling or tasting things he picked up from the ground. There is a point at which an utterly disgusted Vecchio asks “Are you tasting things? Again?” when Fraser picks up some unidentified shreds of material from the sidewalk and brings them to his mouth. It’s a trick of investigation that one is left to assume is much safer and probably far cleaner when it happens in Canada than when it’s done in Chicago.

The episodes had a basic set-up, there was a crime, Fraser and Vecchio had to solve it.  Fraser did some things that were supposed to be typically Canadian that ended up being socially awkward in Chicago.  Vecchio tried to show him how the crime would get solved by his methods.  Fraser would add some backwoods wisdom that would make it all come together, and then they’d solve the crime.  Usually, some funny things happened in there, too.

One entire episode was devoted to Diefenbaker’s point of view.  Dief, as he was often called, is said to be deaf, but he can read lips.  His particular episode reveals that Dief is an even smarter canine than viewers assumed, though some ambiguity over the extent of Dief’s deafness lingers.

As the show progressed, viewers found out more about how Fraser came to adopt Diefenbaker and where the name Diefenbaker originated.  Fraser’s loyal companion, as it turns out, was named for a former Canadian Prime Minister.  Dief learns to enjoy junk food while living in Chicago.  He also has a savings account.

The last season (or two, depending on which country you watched it in) departed from the earlier seasons. It took a few more chances by stepping off the clearly marked trail (there are ghosts, just saying), but it all still works operating in that unique context created by the show’s writers.

“Due South” straddled the line between comedy and drama.  It had some darker moments, but it never descended into the realm of shock for shock’s sake. It also never ended up resorting to gallows humor.  The show played a lot with expectations and stereotypes without getting offensive on any front. Instead, the show built great characters who were fun to watch, no matter what happened to them.

Here lately, I’ve definitely been feeling the urge to break out my season set DVDs and start a rewatch. It’s not just because Paul Gross makes a great Mountie.  It a show that knows when and how to apply humor and how to be a cop show without being all murder all the time.  That seems to be a rarity these days.