James Oddy 7th May 2019
Remember when all television was at a set time, on a set channel, on a set day? Remember some of the clockwork rituals which accompanied it?
American wrestling, recorded in the middle of the night to be enjoyed after school with your tea, on a fuzzy VHS recording, fingers crossed it wouldn’t cut off before the main event. The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to help transition from children’s TV to adults. Sometimes a chippy tea and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Saturday night with Shooting Stars, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and the ultimate cult show, Red Dwarf, well past bedtime, even for a Saturday. Match of the Day if your parents let you stay up to watch it. And double Simpsons on a Sunday night, the symbolic end to a carefree weekend before the return to the grind of Monday morning maths.
This was life timetabled by television. By that, I don’t mean we were permanently sat in front of a screen. Occasionally we had to use the toilet. Instead, you knew most of the time when what you wanted to watch was on and, maybe more importantly, when the duff stuff was on. It could lead to a strangely reassuring rhythm of having to do other things — reading, writing, playing football.
Nothing really seems to capture the calm before the internet storm of the 90s in TV terms better than Due South, a comedy crime drama that ran for four seasons from 1994-99. Perhaps it’s not the most widely recognised show but, please, take a minute to indulge yourself and listen to the theme tune — the internet does indeed have some uses. If you don’t get misty-eyed after the first few chords, then there’s something deeply wrong with you. “High winds in the northern sky will carry you away” indeed.
The theme really sets you up for the type of show Due South is. For those of you still drawing a blank, it tells the story of Brenton Fraser (played by Paul Gross), a gleaming Canadian Mountie who is forced to “strike out on his own” and find his father’s killer in the United States, specifically the mean streets of Chicago.
If it were made today, it would probably be an introspective, dark, psychological thriller, where Fraser looks into the abyss and indulges myriad vices. Instead, made in the 1990s, it’s a buddy cop procedural featuring an heroic wolf.
Because, yes, there is a wolf/dog sidekick, who could leap out of tall, exploding, buildings and apprehended the most dangerous of gun-wielding baddies with barely a scratch sustained. Diefenbaker was the dream mid-Nineties pet. To this day, I can’t help but look wistfully at a passing husky and hope he will help me solve the mystery of who stole my last drop of green top milk from the work fridge.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a buddy cop procedural without the contrasting cops. Fraser is paired with ‘street smart’ Detective Ray Vecchio (David Marciano). Vecchio is a great time capsule for bumbling mid 90s masculinity. He’s not incompetent as such, but he isn’t really as cool or effective as he likes to believe, either. He likes to pontificate to the boy scout like Fraser, who often shows Vecchio to be a fool with old school police work and manners. Fraser also has some downright bizarre skills, which seem more in keeping with Dale Cooper’s visits to the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. Oh an occasionally the ghost of Fraser’s father would show up to help him solve crimes — really.
With elements of the likes of Northern Exposure and Fargo, it’s a fascinating medley of ideas and styles. Those elements perhaps hint at the show’s appeal.
The show is largely humorous and innocent but it does reveal some hidden depths at times. After lulling you into a false sense of security, it would occasionally hit with a storyline about police corruption, deadly organised crime, or Fraser solving a crime by smelling someone’s breath. And is there anything more terrifying to a seven-year-old than having to try and go solve your dad’s killing, on your own?
It had an idiosyncratic, freewheeling nature which seems a world away from the glossy prestige shows we see today. It also felt like an abnormal. It was a distinctly Northern American show on peak time British TV. Even in this second golden age of television, the Beeb seems consistently hesitant to schedule and promote shows it has had the rights for, such as Mad Men and The Wire.
All the above being said, it really isn’t a “dark” show. As much as I will praise The Sopranos ad nauseam, Due South isn’t gangsters choking informants to death with a hosepipe or talking about the futility of life with a psychiatrist. It was exactly the kind of show you could watch on BBC together as a family and, perhaps crucially, one you would actually watch as a family. It had elements that appealed to many different demographics, something which seems very alien these days. It didn’t have the luxury of finding a niche due to a multitude of platforms and delivery methods.
This was a time pre-Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube. It seems unthinkable now not to have the ability to watch almost anything you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. I’m hesitant to call it a better time because it probably wasn’t. It probably seemed better because I was a kid, and the most important thing was, well… TV.
I don’t think it’s wrong to say it was a time with a slower pace of life, for the most part. The Nineties were a charming but down to earth Mountie, today is a cynical, hardboiled, slightly incompetent Chicago detective. The internet was on the horizon but hadn’t really impacted on life in a really meaningful way. You couldn’t access emails with the tap of a screen. You couldn’t flick on an app to see a stream of racism, xenophobia, misogynism and memes. And you couldn’t pause the TVshow you were watching to do just that. What’s more, you weren’t drowning in content.
You had what was showing and maybe a few VHS tapes and maybe, some shiny new DVDs with interactive menus. You had options, but not many. Now, if a Netflix show doesn’t hook you straight in, it’s hard not to feel the crushing weight of thousands of other shows you can flick over to immediately.
Due South isn’t that easy to find these days. By that, I mean it’s easily available to purchase in physical DVD format. but who buys DVDs? And it’s not a part of any streaming service we’re constantly jacked in to. But that’s good. I’m hesitant to say Due South has aged well. It looks and feels very Nineties. But it’s saving grace is perhaps that it’s never been adapted, rebooted or, horror of horrors, “re-imagined” for the 21st century.
It’s frozen in the ice of the Nineties, the very elements that make it what it is, rendering it inert to corporate attempts at defrosting. That means I can’t easily ruin my own memories of it. I remember boldly telling myself that I’d rewatch all of Star Trek when it appeared on Netflix one day. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t eight years old, sat with your Dad with a can of Dandelion and Burdock and a chip butty great, either.
While a show like The X-Files have been resurrected and shamble into our digital age, showing all their shoddy make-up effects and ideas which no longer seem relevant, Due South remains a perfectly pleasant time capsule for those who came of age in a forgotten decade. Dig it out one rainy Saturday afternoon. Or, better yet, reminisce about watching it on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
James Oddy 7th May 2019