Everyone in the U.S. these days wants to do a show like The Rockford Files, but Canada got there first with Republic of Doyle. Allan Hawco, star and creator of the CBC’s new comedy-mystery (airing Wednesdays at 9 p.m.), told Maclean’s that he got the idea for the show, about a private investigator in St. John’s, “when I was watching The Rockford Files with my dad. I was thinking it’s time we re-investigate these private detective shows, as long as we don’t take them too seriously.” Rockford’s mix of mystery and self-parody is beloved in the TV business; Kay Reindl wrote at seriocity.blogspot.com that most writers dream of “creating a light detective show.” Now that Doyle is on the air, we’ll find out if viewers like this kind of show as much as writers do.
While Hawco was influenced by other shows, including Denis Leary’s mix of comedy and drama in Rescue Me, he says Rockford, which ran from 1974 to 1980, is “the first show on the list of inspirations.” Like James Garner’s character, Hawco’s Jake Doyle spends a lot of time with his father, though unlike Rockford’s dad, Malachi (Sean McGinley) is a PI too. The plots occasionally have a Rockford feel: the fourth episode, about a disreputable rich man offering Jake a huge fee to prove he didn’t commit a murder, recalls the first episode of the ’70s classic.
More importantly, the show is looking to Rockford as an inspiration for its combination of silliness and grittiness, what Hawco calls “a fun fantasy that’s believable enough that you don’t change the channel.” Most of today’s mysteries are about people with special gifts: Tony Shalhoub’s character on Monk (which just had its series finale) or Simon Baker on The Mentalist are superhuman detectives in the tradition of the current movie star, Sherlock Holmes. The Rockford model is to have what Hawco calls “the put-upon hero,” who makes mistakes, gets beaten up a lot, and is chewed out by his father for not being a good enough detective. Writer Cal Coons, a consultant on the show, adds that Jake “isn’t the world’s greatest mind, and he’s not armed with a slew of technological weapons like a CSI character.” He’s the opposite of a super-heroic detective.
And yet unlike outright parodies of the genre (like HBO’s Bored to Death), a Rockford-style show like Doyle has to respect the conventions of the mystery format. Jake always solves the crime in the end, and he and his father are bound by an old-fashioned moral code; Hawco says they “always try to do the right thing” when it comes to their clients and each other, though “they’re never sentimental about it.” That could be one of the things that attracts writers to this style of television: they get to do a straightforward mystery and have fun with it at the same time. And because the hero is a charming, bumbling guy, he can have the kind of normal relationships that a Holmes type of detective cannot: Hawco says that a lot of scenes revolve around Jake “dropping the ball when it comes to women” (including an on-again, off-again relationship with his ex-wife). He can be a romantic comedy hero, not just a mystery machine.
This set-up also allows a show to be specific about where the stories take place. Most mystery shows could happen almost anywhere—the CSI shows literally have the same format in different cities. But because Jake isn’t a brilliant detective, his main weapon is his understanding of his hometown. Coons says he gets the information he needs because “he knows his fellow Newfoundlanders” and “the way that society works,” and the plots are sometimes based on the social and class issues of the city (including the new wealth created by the local oil boom). Hawco notes that the setting “shouldn’t exclude anyone in Canada. There’s no in-joke.” But the uniqueness of the location is as big a part of a show like this as the Los Angeles of Rockford: it makes the city into a character.
It’s hard to say whether local colour and humour will be a big draw for today’s audiences. To those raised on Jack Bauer, it can almost seem disconcerting when Jake uses words, not action, to stop a gun battle. But it might be that Canadians have a special affinity for this kind of storytelling; a Canadian writer, House’s David Shore, is even developing an actual remake of The Rockford Files for NBC. Hawco seems to think this style was the only one that would have worked for a Canadian audience. “If we made a PI show in St. John’s that was tough and gritty,” he says, “I’d be laughed out of the country.”