by ETHAN PETERSON
creator Aubrey Nealon
John Cardinal (Billy Campbell of The Killing) is one hell of a guy. His wife developed dementia just a few years ago, and he placed her in a full-time care facility. He feels too guilty about this to pursue any other woman, even if he wanted to – he still loves his blonde wife, who intermittently forgets her name. Each time some aspect of her illness presents itself to him in conversation, you can see the sorrow vaguely emanating from his beard. Since he is Canadian – more specifically a resident of the freezing fictional hamlet of Algonquin Bay – he does not weep openly at these developments, but tries to do some good in the world to make himself feel better about the bad.
Cardinal is a detective paired with a young, female partner named Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse), who is secretly investigating him as well. During the six episode first season of Cardinal (happily, the show has already been greenlit for several more), the pair follow up on the case of a tortured little girl. The mystery story is not much of one – it is purely a genre pretext to investigate how small communities relate to each other, and how little knowledge of the outside world is really relevant to their lives.
A whole group of human beings, Cardinal suggests, are worried about what happens in the world at large. These emotional swells are caused by what they read in the news or see or television. The rest of humanity, as depicted in Cardinal, is focused more closely on the drama of their friends and neighbors.
The severe environment of this area in Canada has always made an impact on the local culture, of course. As Cardinal and Delorme investigate a couple perpetrating the murder-abductions, all the witnesses to the events are deeply upset by the wrongness in the community. Most are angry at Cardinal himself as if it were his personal responsibility to end crime as they know it.
Cardinal's daughter Catherine (Deborah Hay) is a student at a Toronto college. The geographical separation from her parents seems intention on Cardinal's part – he does not want her attention so inwardly focused in this tiny community. His partner shares his reservations about making a life in this frigid place. She clandestinely takes birth control while she and her husband Josh (Alden Adair) are trying to have a baby.
The violent aspects of Cardinal are as severe in other shows of its genre, but they are far more clumsily done. The boy that serial killer Eric Fraser abducts is more threatened and confined; he never really comes to harm. Delorme's investigation of Cardinal is the more exciting thread, but she only confirms he is as virtuous as we expected. This traditional result comes as a relief, since it is not reassuring to think of a morally ambiguous man patrolling this last place.
Based on the novels of Giles Blunt, Cardinal does feel like a relic at times, both the character and the show. Wary of stepping into the familiar rhythms of the police procedurals Cardinal is intent on not being, there is a striking focus on how Canadians deal with justice and loss in their own inimitable fashion. The American actor Billy Campbell himself is keenly suited to this role, expert as he is at conveying a basic sincerity that is not at all naive. Anything that survives so long in the cold deserves to be preserved.
Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.