Americans Like Our Shows... Eventually

Marsha Lederman has an article on Chris Haddock, who created Da Vinci’s Inquest and Intelligence for the CBC, and how the belated U.S. following of those shows wound up getting him his current job on Boardwalk Empire. It turns out that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was an admirer of Da Vinci’s Inquest, and mentioned this after he sat on a panel being moderated by Haddock; Haddock sent copies of Intelligence to Gilligan and Treme‘s Eric Overmeyer, and the two of them started talking the show up in Los Angeles.

Gilligan, it turns out, was a fan of Da Vinci’s Inquest, having come across it back home while channel surfing. “I was really struck by the writing and the pacing,” Gilligan says. “I thought it just seemed like a more grown-up procedural than I was used to seeing. The characters in it just seemed like real people … not over-baked and overblown like we sometimes see on American TV.”

Gilligan didn’t know anything about Intelligence, though. So after that first meeting, Haddock sent Gilligan and Overmyer some DVDs. Gilligan liked Intelligence even more than Da Vinci. “It’s just a tremendously written show,” Gilligan says. “It’s wonderful storytelling, very intricately plotted.” He says he mentioned Intelligence to a “bunch of writers” in Los Angeles, and to his own agent, who signed Haddock.

Last September, Haddock met with HBO in L.A. They batted around ideas for new series, but within an hour after the meeting, Haddock got a call: Would he consider working on somebody else’s show? “I said it depended on what it was, and they said ‘Well it’s Boardwalk Empire,’ and I said ‘Yeah I think I’d probably consider that.’” Haddock says that with a laugh. By the end of the month, Haddock had relocated to Brooklyn Heights, his new apartment a one-stop ferry ride up the East River to the show’s offices at Steiner Studios.

Intelligence also seems to be getting more intention in America in general. It’s one of the shows that gets recommended to people after they’ve watched The Wire and want something similar.

The cancellation of Intelligence was a sad moment in Canadian TV, but it’s hard to argue that it was anyone’s fault (unless you put a lot of stock in the rumours that it was canceled for political reasons). The Wire didn’t have a lot of viewers either, but it was protected by being on pay TV. Intelligence may not have been right for the CBC, or maybe even Canadian television as it was constituted at the time; as Haddock says in the article, he was probably a bit ahead of its time.

But Haddock’s move from Canada to HBO does demonstrate one of the weaknesses of Canadian TV: we still don’t really have much of a studio system. Back when the Da Vinci spinoff Da Vinci’s City Hall, was canceled after only one season, Haddock said that this was partly compensated for by the fact that the CBC picked up Intelligence as a series. This allowed much of the crew to be kept together, and allowed Haddock to keep his production company together. But once Intelligence was gone, there was no longer a way to build on the core of the Da Vinci franchise, or to create a flow of international-calibre procedural and serial shows. HBO and other U.S. networks have ongoing deals with writers, or (as in Haddock’s case) sign up a writer and put him to work as a writer on someone else’s show while waiting to see if they’ll do a bigger project with him.

There is not a lot of continuity or security in the TV business, of course, but the U.S. seems a little better at calling dibs on a talented writer: someone signs a multi-year contract with HBO or Warner Brothers or 20th-Century Fox TV, and if their show gets canceled, they’re working on developing projects, or they’re assigned to be “co-executive producer” on someone else’s show. Eventually, perhaps, they’re left without a show to work on and are dropped by the studio, or their production companies are no longer in business with the networks. For all we know, something like that might have happened to Chris Haddock, who was, by any TV standards, quite lucky and successful (one long-running show, one cult show, one failed spinoff). But we’ll never really know. The development process in the U.S. is well-oiled enough that if someone creates a successful show, he will get a lot of chances to prove that it was a fluke. In Canada, the creator and crew of a Da Vinci or a Slings & Arrows may not be flooded with offers.

In some ways this is an unsolvable problem, because of money and interest: we live next door to the U.S., and as long as we do, the U.S. TV industry will be bigger, more lucrative and better able to maintain a studio system. But we do make shows that people like, both here and (as we’ve seen with Da Vinci, Intelligence, Slings and many others) south of the border. We just don’t always seem to know how to keep people working here in a consistent way.