The CBC did something smart with Republic of Doyle. They didn't over sell it.
There are no full page ads in the dailies today declaring Doyle the show everyone is talking about, as there were for Being Erica. It isn't being hyped this morning as a game changer, as the recent news makeover ads implied.
Instead, today in my copy of The Toronto Star, there is a half page ad featuring Doyle star/executive producer Allan Hawco behind the wheel of Jake Doyle's retro-cool 1968 GTO with the cut line, "Trouble is his business. And business is good."
Business will be good, too, when Republic of Doyle premieres tonight at 9 p.m. following the strongest lead-in on the CBC schedule, Dragon's Den. CBC finally got the scheduling right, making damn sure this show didn't bow opposite the Death Star that was the Junior World Hockey Championships.
Republic of Doyle also arrives just as crime dramas take a turn away from dark corners and toward the light. This series is more about character than plot, although the weekly whodunit premise works, too. It is a genre show, plain and simple, stocked with wise guys, car chases and snappy one-liners. It is Rockford Files meets The Rock, Magnum NFLD. It is a guy's show, a welcome shot of testosterone on a CBC schedule that was too girly after a string of Sophies, Wild Roses and Ericas.
The casting is quite good, with Hawco a perfect fit as charismatic scamp Jake Doyle, a dude living by his wits on the streets of St. John's as a private investigator. His dad, Malachy (wonderfully played by veteran Irish stage actor Sean McGinley), is paired with his son in the venture and their acerbic, edgy relationship feels as authentic as it is entertaining.
The Doyles live under the same roof, running their little PI operation out of their garage. Keeping the house together is Malachy's gorgeous gal Rose (Lynda Boyd), who loves the old man but is not about to take any guff from the other house crashers, including snarky young niece Tinny (Marthe Bernard). Rachel Wilson plays Jake's tempestuous ex-wife Nikki, who seems a little too closely based on Tommy Gavin's ex- from Rescue Me (an acknowledged influence on Hawco and the Doyle writers). Local cop Leslie Bennett (Krystin Pellerin) has what Jake Doyle needs: inside info on the bad guys and long blond hair.
Tonight's pilot episode is a straight ahead, almost retro PI hour. 22 Minutes joker Shaun Majumder shows up as a pal of Jake's who has landed in the slammer. He's the first in a weekly series of Canadian stars you'll see as the villain/victim of the week, with Nicholas Campbell, Gordon Pinsent, Mary Walsh, Sean Doyle, Ian Tracy, Cathy Jones and others in the weeks ahead.
I've also screened the fourth episode, which features Newfoundland native Doyle as a man out for revenge, and it is more complex, more like a modern hour of crime TV. This show will have to walk a tightrope as it seeks to avoid straying too far into pure retro campiness. Jake's world has to be real, and strong performances from both McGinley and Boyd (above) helps screw it down tight in the episodes I've seen. Great guest stars help there, too, although Doyle of all people seems almost over-the-top Newfy in his episode.
There are two other big stars which make Doyle shine: the perfectly cast Pontiac GTO, the kind of beauty wheels every TV PI must have, and the great province of Newfoundland, shown to such advantage on this series. St. John's is a hilly place, and those cresting roads give it a Streets of San Francisco jump. Beyond that, the place is one of the most picturesque towns in all of Canada, with that magnificent harbour embracing more colourful bars and bar patrons than you can shake a Guinness at.
The show does come down to Hawco, though, in almost every way. Besides being the guy in the poster, the scruffy anti-hero who has to appeal to men and women in that James Garner kind of way, it's his baby, his passion, his vision. Having met the man and visited his town I get his determination to drive this car his way. That's the way it should be, with strong, single vision creators from David Chase to Brent Butt as the example.
CBC has taken a leap of faith with Hawco, however, in handing the keys to a team that hasn't really made a TV show before. Hawco, seen recently on ZOS: Zone of Separation and H20, appears to be a quick learner, picking the brain of his buddy Paul Gross almost daily via Blackberry, and proved he could manage talent after successfully launching his Toronto-based theatre company.
That the show veers off road now and then shouldn't hurt in the short term. It could use a few tweaks in story and styling. The music is caught between a retro groove and a generic rift. Sometimes the scene slams into a commercial break like somebody forgot this isn't HBO.
Even those flaws are quickly forgiven, however, because so many other elements are so welcome. A few glitches here and there feel more like a nod to the simpler, sloppier '70s.
What Hawco and the others instinctively got absolutely right is that PI shows are, above all, supposed to be fun to watch. You're supposed to catch the hero with his pants down, as long as he does the right thing, no pun intended, in the end. You want to hang out with these dudes, preferably in the front passenger seat of the GTO, and screw the seat belt.
Fasten your seat belts anyway, Canada, you are in for one cool ride.