Review for Due South: The Complete Series
I used to be a telly addict, would watch over 20 hours of the stuff a week. I could even get a high score on Telly Addicts, the Noel Edmonds vehicle designed to show just how sad we really were. Technically I’m still addicted to the flat rectangle in the corner, only I’m no longer watching the broadcast stuff. It’s the irony of just having too much choice. Twenty years ago, all we had were four channels, and the split was something like 40% watchable, 60% dross. It was easy to set a viewing schedule and stick to it, programmes were less liable to clash, and you could easily remember what was on, where, and when. Today, there is just as much watchable television, only it’s now diluted across 100 channels, and keeping to a schedule is impossible and meaningless in a world of plus one channels and catch up services, and where the biggest shows get premiered on Amazon Prime and Netflix. Broadcast TV is practically extinct in the 21st Century. These days, I watch maybe two hours of broadcast television a week, and when my favourite shows are the only shows I watch, the word ‘favourite’ is also meaningless. But back when I did watch 20 hours plus a week, most of it genre television, having a favourite show really meant something. In the mid nineties, my favourite television show was Due South.
These days, most of my television viewing is done with shiny discs, both DVD and Blu-ray. I’ve got enough of a collection now to effectively have my own television channel, to watch the shows and movies at my own convenience. The surprising thing is that it took me this long to finally get Due South on DVD, and it was a recent re-listen to the Due South soundtrack CDs that brought the show back to mind. I first looked for the show when I got my DVD player, and could only find it on import from the US. That US release somehow squeezed 70 odd episodes onto 8 double-sided discs. There’s also been an 11 disc release, and none of them have had transfers that have satisfied fans. So back at the start of the year, when I was inspired by the soundtrack CDs to have another browse, I didn’t hold out much hope for improvement. It turned out that in the intervening years, Due South had been licensed for UK release by Network, and they’d released the series individually in 2006, as well as a complete series collection... on 18 discs, with extras. They then went and re-released it in 2010, in a repackaged version. Good things come to those who forget that they are even waiting.
Like so many of my favourite shows, Due South constantly skated the edge of cancellation. Indeed it was cancelled after one 24 episode season by CBS, but fan appreciation in Canada and the UK got it enough funding for a second 18 episode season. It actually took international investment, including from the BBC, to fund the third and fourth mini-seasons, here presented as a single 26-episode third season. The series is presented across 18 discs, in 3 Amaray style cases, with the second case actually holding all five discs of season 2, and the first disc of season 3.
Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is the quintessential Mountie. He’s impeccably uniformed at all times, unfailing polite, wholly equipped for outdoors survival, and he always, always gets his man. He’s not exactly equipped for urban living (he found the hectic bustle of Moosejaw quickly overwhelming), but he is the last of a dying breed. Even more so when he learns of the death of his father, Bob Fraser, also a Mountie. The clues to his killer point across the border, in the US city of Chicago. The Chicago Police Department is overwhelmed at the best of times, and the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil isn’t high on their priorities, but when the impeccably uniformed but naive Constable Benton Fraser (and his deaf wolf, Diefenbaker) meets the stylishly attired, cynical and worldly police detective Ray Vecchio, it’s the start of a rather odd partnership, especially when by investigating his father’s death, Fraser puts the wrong noses out of joint in Canada, leaving him permanently reassigned to the Canadian consulate in Chicago. Will city living finally corrupt the Mountie, or will Fraser’s presence in Chicago actually make a difference for its citizens?
22 episodes of Season 1, plus the feature length pilot episode are presented across 6 discs.
In which Fraser’s life is made more complicated by the arrival of a new superior officer in the form of Inspector Margaret Thatcher (yes, really!), whose first reaction to her atypical officer is to fire him.
18 episodes of Season 2 are presented across 5 discs.
Fraser returns from a vacation in Canada to learn that his apartment has burnt down, which let’s face it is very noticeable. He also finds that Ray Vecchio now looks, sounds and behaves like a completely different person, which no one else notices...
Due South finished with two short seasons in 1997 and 1998, but they have been combined into one 26-episode long Season 3 across seven discs in this collection.
Due South is a US/Canadian show from the mid-nineties, so I wouldn’t expect wonders from its NTSC to PAL converted 4:3 transfer on these discs. The source material is most likely videotape, so expect a soft image, low resolution, and an overall lack of detail. At least the bright red of a Mountie uniform and the forest green of a Buick Riviera all make it through the process of putting the show on DVD. It’s par for the course for a show of this vintage. The last few years, as more and more television from the nineties starts to make its way to Blu-ray, I’ve come to understand that most of these shows were actually shot on film; you can still see the odd film artefact, a scratch or fleck of dirt on the print despite the video resolution. It’s just that when it came to post-production, the editing process, the shows were finished on tape, especially as it was more convenient for distribution to network affiliates. It’s those tapes that served as the masters for DVD presentation. Where there’s a will, and a budget, such as in Star Trek the Next Generation, and The X Files, they’ve gone back to the original film elements, reconstructed the episodes and mastered them for full HD presentation on Blu-ray or broadcast. I’m sure that the original film for Due South exists somewhere. I’m also sure that this show won’t see a similar HD upgrade. If there ever was one, I’d pounce on it like a deaf wolf.
You have the DD 2.0 Stereo English track, which for the most part is more than acceptable, with the dialogue clear, and with a decent balance with the show’s music and action sequences. There are the odd moments, such as when Ray’s wrapped in frozen meat, trying to stay alive in an industrial freezer, or when he’s trying to escape a straitjacket in a padded cell, that dialogue can be muffled, and it’s at moment like this that you’d wish the discs had subtitles so that you could get the full sarcasm. But you do get Due South’s wonderful, eclectic music soundtrack without flaw, including the great theme song. It’s surprising as I was sure that this would be one show that would fall afoul of music rights issues. The dialogue too is choice, some of the best written characters in television. It’s not exactly quotable; after all you really need to know the context for lines like “Duck. Duck means duck! Duck doesn't mean duck!”, but for fans of the show, a simple “Thank you, kindly” is enough to bring a smile to the face. Incidentally, the volume level for season 3 is lower than the first two, necessitating the extra effort of pushing the volume button on my remote for a little longer, and a couple more wishful prods at the subtitle button.
A card slipcover holds three Amaray style cases, the spines matching to create an image of Fraser and Diefenbaker. Each Amaray holds 6 discs, two overlapping on each face, and two overlapping on a central hinged panel. You get episode listings on the back of the slipcover, and on the back of each Amaray sleeve, while the inside of each sleeve has episode synopses. The discs present their content with static menus.
The first extra features crop up all the way into disc 11, a collection of archive interviews. Paul Gross and David Marciano are interviewed for US TV on the CBS This Morning Interview, which lasts 3:36, and for Canadian TV on Canada AM Interview (4:37). Both of these are VHS quality, and are brief promo pieces for the show. Paul Gross turns up again on the Noel’s House Party Interview (3:18), and while this is of broadcast quality, it’s more of a comedy sketch than an interview. Finally on this disc, someone has rescued the BBC 1 trailer for Season 2 from a home recorded VHS tape.
You’ll have to wait until Disc 14 for more extras, where you’ll find Promotional Trailers for the Pilot Movie, and Seasons 1-3 running to two or three minutes, the sort of promo used to sell shows to networks. The Series 3 featurette lasts 7:16, and offers behind the scenes looks at the making of the show with some soundbite interviews. You get 7 series three TV spots running to 5:36 in total, and Series Three Interview Soundbites offer 9 nibbles, running to 4:45, and expanding on those snippets in the featurette. Finally the unedited B-Roll Footage is just that, more behind the scenes stuff running to 8:03.
The extras conclude on disc 18, with a couple of short interviews with Paul Gross on CITV’s Mashed (6:20) and BBC’s Fully Booked (4:55) in summer 1998, when he was promoting his music career off Due South, and the single ‘32 Down on the Robert McKenzie’.
The substantial piece here is the ‘Ride Forever’ Due South Documentary, presented in widescreen and lasting 54:01, catching up with the cast and some of the crew in 2006 to offer a look back at the show. It’s a nice piece, talking heads with the actors which takes a fairly straight look at the history of the series and what it meant. There was another documentary called Southbound that was broadcast in the same year on ITV, which offers much the same, but is more light-hearted in its approach. It’s a shame that it’s not here for balance, but you can find it on Youtube.
Finally you get an audio commentary from Paul Gross (Benton Fraser) on the final two episodes of the series, Call of the Wild, Parts 1 & 2. It’s a nice, informative and entertaining commentary that looks at the finale of the show, and the rest of the series overall.
Due South may just be my favourite TV show of the nineties, and it’s not hard to see just why. For one thing, and from a purely personal perspective, the network hated it, which I find is a prerequisite for all the shows I love. It got cancelled not once, but twice, yet it still managed to be reprieved long enough for the show to come to a natural conclusion. The first time it was cancelled by CBS, the production company Alliance decided to make the second season regardless. The second time it was Alliance that cancelled it, and then its global popularity got European broadcasters like the BBC investing in it. It was also one of the first shows that really got the mix between drama, comedy and whimsy just right. A few years later, that would become standard for shows like Ally McBeal, but when Due South did it, it was unique on the airwaves.
What I love most about the show, absolutely adore about it, is its sheer sense of hope, optimism, and decency. Shows like that were rare enough back in the nineties, but come 2001, everything went dark, cynical and gritty. That isn’t to say that Due South couldn’t do dark and foreboding. It was a police procedural to be sure; each episode had a crime committed, and our heroes working to solve it. But given the setting of the show, many of these crimes were often small and petty, the victims the poor and deprived, the lower end of the social scale, living in rundown tenements and slums, you could say that these characters rarely had anything to be optimistic about. It’s just that its premise was of a stand-up guy, a perfect, honest Mountie in Chicago who became a beacon of light to this community. By his simple example he would bring the best out in the people he met. Benton Fraser was a character that instinctively trusted the people he met, treated them with respect and politeness, and though it took time, he eventually got that in return. Of course he’s an impossible character, a paragon of virtue, but Due South made the slums and seedy underworld of Chicago look more wholesome and brighter than the real world. You’d much rather be there because the people were nicer.
That is another attractive aspect of the show. While the average police procedurals were, and are about the more horrific crimes such as murder, or big and ‘glamorous’ crimes that would be front page news in the real world, Due South more often than not, runaway nuclear trains and Russian sub smuggling notwithstanding, was about the little guy, the smaller crimes, the hard-up boxer deliberately getting run over to claim on health insurance, contaminated meat in supermarkets, an in debt family selling their baby for adoption, a pizza delivery guy’s stolen car, a farmer’s chicken held for ransom and so on. All small crimes are potentially devastating for the victims, and Due South recognised that by focusing on them. But it has to be said that the bizarre nature of some of them certainly added to the show’s whimsical nature.
You can hear the show described as an urban fable in the extras, and there is certainly truth in that. After all, its idealised reality of a world where an almost superhuman Mountie can effect change for the better through his example is fantastic, a show that highlights the positive aspects of humanity, of community, of compassion and fairness, that believes in people’s inherent goodness would be asking too much of the audience in any other show, although perhaps that’s too cynical an observation. It’s depressing that the real world doesn’t match even the modest ambitions of a show like Due South. So it has to twist its worldview to make its premise work. There is the perfect nature of its lead character, Benton Fraser, the ever-immaculate Mountie who always gets his man, is unfailingly polite, and self-taught in several unexpected skills. His only weakness is a complete inability to understand the romantic intentions of women, which given the frequency they throw themselves at him, is probably a good thing. When we first meet him, his faithful companion is Diefenbaker, a deaf half-wolf who saved him on the tundra, and has become attached to him ever since, and you get the impression that the wolf is the one with more common sense.
When he comes to Chicago on the trail of his father’s murderer, he comes into contact with the disinterested policeman who’s working the case, one Ray Vecchio, a world-weary, cynical and somewhat self-absorbed policeman, not too successful, and apparently more concerned with his appearance than solving crimes. Benton’s honesty and soft-spoken reproval jars him into helping, and so a memorable partnership is born, with Ray often helping Benton with the ‘small’ cases he encounters while he works at the Canadian Consulate, and living in the worst end of town, in the process actually solving some significant crimes. It’s an ideal partnership, with the two of them together being what they can’t alone. Ray is Benton’s guide to a world that he doesn’t understand, a Mountie from the frozen North in the middle of a metropolis, while Benton’s steadfast nature, honesty, and perseverance, break through Ray’s cynical nature and in the process make him a better policeman, and in the process the two constantly frustrate and infuriate each other into becoming best friends.
For the third season David Marciano (Ray Vecchio) was committed to another show, so Callum Keith Rennie was cast... as Ray Vecchio. The conceit was that the real Ray was undercover in the mob, and Stanley Kowalski was now Ray Vecchio to maintain the fiction he was still in Chicago. And for the first episode of the third series, everyone knew this but Benton. Callum Keith Rennie really brought a different energy to the show, his character was rougher around the edges, with more pent-up energy and a shorter fuse, but he also had moments of childlike naivety and innocence that created a different dynamic with Fraser, and refreshed the show, gave it the momentum to take it to its conclusion.
The supporting cast are excellent, whether it’s the police department or in the consulate, but one of the strongest aspects of the show was down to Fraser’s father, who following his death would initially show up in voiceover, as Fraser read his diaries, until he eventually appeared as a ghost, in death finally getting the chance to bond with his son that he never had in life. It’s worth checking out the guest cast in some of the episodes, actors like Ryan Phillipe, Mark Ruffalo, and a pre-Matrix Carrie-Anne Moss. Then there’s Leslie Nielsen as the flatulent Mountie Buck Frobisher, who reminded us of his dramatic chops in his first appearance in the show, but thereafter returning to the deadpan comedy of which he was better known later in his career.
I still find the first two seasons of Due South to be perfect, well almost. There’s never any justification for a Fraser in drag episode, but it’s easy to remember the show was created by Paul Haggis, who would go on to much greater success in his career. It’s got that balance between comedy, drama and whimsy just right, it has some fantastic episodes, and I love the chemistry between the two leads. The third season gets off to a comparatively ropy start, although it’s not due to the change in cast. It’s almost as if they forgot how to do the show. The balance is off for the first few episodes, with whimsy overwhelming the drama, and Fraser on the verge of becoming a self-parody. It seemed each episode would reveal a new superpower, and the temptation to roll one’s eyes begins to increase. That character silliness does continue till the final episode (where we learn that Fraser is a human fax-modem), but the balance between the drama and comedy is restored a few episodes in, and you get to see that contrast between dark and light once more. In the latter three quarters of season 3, some of the episodes are the best of the whole run.
Due South did it all, funny, moving, dramatic, heart-warming and consistently entertaining. Benton Fraser may have been an exaggerated construct, an impossible ideal, but his example was and is something to aspire to. In this cynical, inward looking, self-centred world, maybe we should all be looking for the best in people, instead of expecting the worst. It presented a dark and somewhat rundown world in its vision of Chicago, but gave us something to be hopeful and optimistic about. That kind of television show is a one-off and should be cherished, and this boxset now has pride of place in my collection.