Durham County is a six-part series airing on Global Television Monday nights at 10 p.m.
By Leo K. Moncel
I have never been so excited about feeling miserable as I am now, moments after watching the first episode of Durham County on Global. If the show continues along the tracks laid out in the pilot, we may be seeing the best-made Canadian drama I’ve ever laid eyes on, but it won’t be a pleasant sight. The premiere opens with the subdued but nevertheless horrific rape and murder of two teenage girls by one man while a second — a possible accomplice, looks on. This is a series that is here to get quite close to the grim and hideously disturbing nature of violence.
Durham County is about the actual Durham County, just a quick SUV-ride up from Toronto. Making just such a trip is the Sweeney family. Behind the wheel is father Mike (Hugh Dillon), a square-jawed homicide detective who’s being reassigned. His wife Audrey (Hélène Joy) is undergoing chemotherapy and vomits during the car ride. Their teenage daughter Sadie chastises her mother to roll down a window, but she refuses. A five-foot tall puppet seated beside Sadie inquires as to when they’ll arrive. The talking puppet removes her face, revealing herself to be Mike’s eight year-old daughter, Cicely, in a Sailor Moon-type mask.
The Sweeney’s get a warm welcome from Traci Prager (Sonya Salomaa) from across the street, a strutting, bottle-blonde mall-mom. When the Sweeney’s go to her barbecue, Mike meets her husband, Ray, (Justin Louis) an old acquaintance of his who he’s not quite on friendly terms with. Ray tells Mike privately, though perhaps not altogether earnestly, that he’s now willing to forgive him for running over his legs in their last year of high school — the event that destroyed his imminent chance to be drafted into the NHL. Ray, we recognize, is the man who had been gazing on the double rape and murder.
So, here is the main conflict of the series. The homicide detective is now living across the street from an old enemy who is, at very least, complicit in a serial killing. The suburban dilemma of having to hide your dysfunctions and present a façade of normalcy has been ratcheted up to the hundredth degree. These people are living with some very big secrets and some very big masks.
The youngest daughter most obviously presents the mask theme, her oversized, permanently happy cartoon head quite the natural defence for an eight year old who has grown up knowing either one or both of her parents could die at any time. Audrey, when it is time to go to the Prager’s barbecue, uses a prosthetic breast, a wig and sufficient make-up to conceal her cancer from the neighbourhood. Mike’s mask may be the biggest of all, though. In this first episode we learn that he took vicious vigilante revenge on the man who shot his partner and that he has been continuously cheating on his cancer-stricken wife.
The characters are well-cast, particularly Justin Louis as Ray Prager, the old enemy and new neighbour. Whereas we’re so used to seeing vicious characters who are brilliant criminal masterminds, Ray’s viciousness is a much more believable kind. Louis gives us a character who is more like that neighbour who’s always revving his car in your driveway, the stranger who shoves you on the street for no reason, the man who shouts at an underpaid clerk for any excuse he can find. He’s that constantly angry man who won’t be calmed until things have gone too far. And so Ray tips things way too far.
The writing is beautifully concise. Far too many pilots tell us far too much and get laden down with dull exposition or awkward character introductions. Since Durham County is a story that is in large part about secrets, the writers wisely leave many for us. This episode reminded me of the better episodes in the first season of Lost. The writers would pick a few pivotal moments in their characters’ lives that gave us a picture of their decision-making habits (their character) but the picture provided would raise further questions about the circumstances of those decisions. Likewise with Mike and Ray, at very least, we have been given sketches of figures in action, but we don’t yet have the background to complete the picture.
As the picture develops, I can say with near certainty the details will only elaborate the bold strokes here. Anyone willing to look at this disturbing picture will find themselves rewarded by its earnestness and its novelty. Durham County reminds us the awful face of violence may be much closer than we imagine.