Show not tell and calling it a draw

Please forgive the clumsy title, I have two things I want to write about, both connected with the Canadian TV series, Cardinal. I’ve just finished watching the fourth and final series, and was left with that wonderful feeling when you have watched/read/heard something so well filmed/written/performed, that it stays with you for days after.

I wrote about Cardinal a couple of days ago, it’s a police procedural set in the imaginary town of Algonquin Bay, the plots and characters taken from the books by Giles Blunt. The plots are intriguing, the way it is filmed extraordinary – the location becomes a character, the pace, dialogue, acting, all amazingly good. However, what was particularly memorable to me was the tour de force performance of Billy Campbell who plays the part of the eponymous John Cardinal.  He doesn’t need to say anything – for example, ‘I’m depressed/upset/puzzled/worn down/broken/ amused/ frightened/ angry/ irritated and so on’ because all is expressed on his face, subtle changes in expression, in his gaze, in the angle of his head, even his posture and gait speak more than any words which could have been written for the character. The filming is paced and measured so what Cardinal is thinking and feeling is more clear because of the timing of each shot, is emphasised and we must empathise and feel more because of it. This makes what in many ways is just a crime series, so compelling, so engaging, because we are drawn in and held by the character of Cardinal.

He is the main character of course, but the same applies to the other actors who are without exception – even the minor parts, so superior in their craft. The other main character is Lise Delorn, played by Karine Vanasse, and whereas Cardinal’s face is so subtly expressive, slight tilts of the head, a raised eyebrow, a tightening of the lips, a narrowing or widening of the eyes, Delorn is almost blank, a slight smile, a focussed stare, a rapid blink, so subtle but it says it all. As for the other actors, even when they are in the background, even distantly in the background, they are still the part – more often in this case with posture than facial expression, but all tight, focussed, spot on!

This acting shows the viewer – we aren’t told, we are shown; this is a maxim usually applied to writing, and one I should have pasted to the top of my computer screen, and here it was a brilliant, perfect example in another medium.

Calling it a draw – knowing when to stop, to stop anything but for a writer or TV producer, it’s knowing when a series has come to the end of its life. Arthur Conan Doyle ran out of steam with Sherlock Holmes but his public demanded the detective’s return so he proved to have escaped the Reichenbach Falls and returned to Baker Street for further adventures. There are other examples of really successful series of books/film/tv shows which are brought back again and again when really what made them so wonderful and so watchable/readable has fizzled out, and they have become sad, flabby and in some cases just plain rubbish. I’ve mentioned series of books I’ve enjoyed, for example, the Shardlake books by C.J. Sansom; to me they seem to go from strength to strength, even though there are some I like more than others which is nothing to do with the quality. Sadly it is unlikely that Mr Sansom will write any more, but if he did, could what he wrote continue to surpass the previous? I’ve also written about the Anna Pigeon books by Nevada Barr; I loved them, they were so brilliantly perfectly written, so gripping, so exciting, so engaging… and then they began to run out of steam, they seemed weary, Anna herself seemed weary, I felt weary reading them, and actually I stopped – I think I got as far as number 16 and gave up on it. I ran out of steam with the Kinsey Millhone stories by Sue Grafton- I remember reading the beginning of ‘L is for Lawless’ and just became weary of it.

Sometimes it isn’t the reader but thee writer who becomes tired of a series, tired of their characters and maybe the genre. Conan Doyle was sick of Sherlock, Agatha Christie became totally fed up with Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple. I don’t think their readers necessarily did, and I remember my huge disappointment and sense of betrayal when I read ‘Borrowed Light’ by Graham Hurley, the eleventh in his Joe Faraday series and (spoiler alert!!!!) Hurley kills off a significant character. He was clearly tired of the character and it wasn’t enough that retirement or relocation should beckon and other characters take over in the next book, there had to be a death! I can understand the feeling that enough is enough – and there have been TV series where the way of making sure no more episodes in a series are possible is to eradicate characters. Worse still, in my opinion, is where an actor is clearly ready to quit and another actor takes over as the same character!

To return to Cardinal, only four series were made, and in my mind they were perfect. The end of the final series was satisfying and believable, and slightly open so that even if nothing else appeared on screen, in the minds of the viewers there was that possibility. There were only six Cardinal novels written by Giles Blunt, and the TV series used all of them over twenty-four episodes. Unless Blunt writes more, or unless he allows another writer to take over the characters, or unless the TV company have tv writers to add extra episodes, that is well and truly it. I don’t think the actors would want to return to their rôles, and without them it would be pointless. All those connected with Cardinal called it a draw, the end, fin!


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