In one way or another Malcolm MacRury has been living with the Canadian television industry for most of his 50 years. He grew up in Toronto across from the Citytv offices, near the church where his father, a Presbyterian minister, preached. He’d often see Dini Petty stealing his father’s parking spot, and remembers a young Ivan Fecan seeking the minister’s thoughts on spiritual matters. Yet MacRury, the writer and executive producer of Showcase’s Cra$h & Burn, says he hasn’t often indulged in the industry’s earnestness. “I started at Street Legal”—CBC’s CanCon version of L.A. Law—“where the dialogue was always, ‘I just got off the bus from Flin Flon,’ so I had enough of that,” MacRury said recently. “This CBC executive once said to me, ‘This guy is our hero, and heroes do not sweat.’ ”
Jimmy Burn sweats. The Cra$h & Burn lead, played by Hamilton actor Luke Kirby, is a grown-up group-home kid prone to fits of violence. In an attempt to contain the chaos of his life (and please his would-be bride), Burn takes a job as an insurance adjuster at Protected, an American company with a foothold in Hamilton. It’s a mirror of his former life; sex, alcohol and violence are the escape valves of choice, his colleagues are mobbed up and his superiors either jaded, crooked or creepily born again.
The show was born out of horror stories MacRury heard from a friend of a friend in the industry. HBO commissioned a pilot in 2001 but ultimately passed, though the script caught the eye of Deadwood creator David Milch, who brought MacRury on to write for the first season of the acclaimed series. MacRury was privy to Milch’s foibles as well as his approach to writing dialogue: he does it out loud as assistants type his words. When MacRury first went down to L.A. to meet Milch, he found the director in his office lying on the ground, reading Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men out loud. Milch offered MacRury some “walking around money” from a wad in his pocket. MacRury demurred—until Milch looked him in the eye and said, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t take money.” MacRury took to “drinking in the morning just to go to work.”
“He gravitates to people that reminded him of the characters,” MacRury says of Milch. “I thought I’d initially be Seth Bullock”—Deadwood’s consistently decent protagonist—“because he’s Canadian. Then I figured it was Preacher Smith, which is too bad because we know how Smith dies.” (Smith is suffocated out of his delirious, brain-tumour-addled misery by a momentarily sympathetic Al Swearengen, the show’s brutish anti-hero.)
Certainly, there are elements of Milch’s sense of the profane in Cra$h. In one scene, the squeaky clean public face of Protected Insurance is on fire and running through one of Hamilton’s finest dining establishments, a victim of a drugged-out orgy that didn’t go quite as planned. It is a PR nightmare for the company brass. What if this gets out? Who is going to do our commercials now that our spokesperson’s face has been flame-broiled?
Cra$h’s insurance adjusters aren’t innocuous buttoned-down geeks who dole out money in the wake of catastrophe. Rather, they are the grunts of a system infested with gangsters, whores, cheaters and Jesus freaks. Each episode begins with a Six Feet Under-style calamity requiring Protected’s services. Burn’s clients, eager to maximize their take, are often as crooked as the industry. “Insurance is the only industry where every body part, everything in your life, has a price,” MacRury says. “At the same time, it’s a misplaced faith. The idea that you can have safety and security is a fallacy.” Cra$h was an easy sell for Showcase, which will be broadcasting a fair bit of less-than-Littlest Hobo Canadian fare in the coming year. “Last year Showcase approached me and asked if I had any ideas, and that was that,” MacRury says.
MacRury and fellow executive producer Paul Gross settled on Hamilton largely because it was cheap and gritty–“Baltimore Light,” says Clark Johnson, alum of Baltimore-based The Wire, who plays a fraud investigator on Cra$h. “Canada is a few years behind the States in everything, including crime. You’re starting to see some of the problems in Hamilton and Toronto in terms of crime and gangs that we’ve had here for a long time.” So our TV is getting better because our cities are getting worse? A backhanded compliment, but we’ll take it.