Although Canada has become a hotspot for film and television from a technical standpoint, it’s been slower in its transition to actually producing content geared towards Canadian content, relatively speaking. In the past decade, this mold has been broken with shows like Orphan Black, Travelers, Corner Gas, Letterkenny, Republic of Doyle, Trailer Park Boys, and Murdoch Mysteries which have made concerted efforts to fill that vacuum.
In keeping with the popularity of legal dramas which tend to dominate American television, the CBC’s latest endeavour Burden of Truth feels like a refreshing take on what has generally been a procedural genre with one-off episodes – think Law and Order or Castle.
The show follows Joanna Haley (played by actor and executive producer Kristin Kreuk) as an up-and-coming corporate attorney with a cunning and intellect that has clearly marked her for a promising future in her firm, where her enigmatic and somewhat manipulative father (Alex Carter) resides as a senior partner. When a number of high school girls develop strange seizure-like symptoms everything points to a new vaccine produced by one of the firm’s clients, and Joanna returns to her hometown of Millwood to take the case.
It quickly becomes apparent that whatever is happening to the girls is spreading, but when the vaccine is ruled out, Joanna realizes there may be a bigger case on her hands than she thought. Things are further complicated by the tenuous relationship she still has with her old town – after high school she and her father abruptly moved away, and being back for the first time in 17 year opens up a mixed bag of emotions, including a mysterious resentment harbored by many of the town’s residents against her family. It sets the stage for a show that is as comfortable in its legal vernacular as it is in its dramatic snapshots of Joanna slowly coming to terms with her past, as well as her own conscience, and trying to reconcile both with her vocation as a cut-throat lawyer.
For my part, it’s extremely gratifying to see Kreuk step out of the pigeonhole of sci-fi/supernatural shows which have tended to dominate her career (Smallville, Beauty and the Beast, and for you diehard cultists Space Milkshake), and to flourish in a more ‘serious’ role. Her portrayal of Joanna teeter-totters back and forth, balancing between Machiavellian ambition and reluctant compassion, but rather than feeling hackneyed, the effect feels reactive and humanizing. This is achieved in no small part through the interactions with her co-stars, including solo small-town lawyer and former classmate Billy Crawford, managed by a likeable if somewhat expositional Peter Mooney. There is a chilliness in the interactions between Joanna and the rest of the town, and the pivot towards them warming to her coincides with the pivot in the narrative: when Joanna is confronted by one of the girls she was tasked with buying off, and decides to stay in Millwood to try and figure out the cause of the sickness in town. This ‘change of heart’, though it feels somewhat sudden and abrupt – and perhaps not quite earned in the pilot episode – nevertheless works well as a springboard for the rest of the series.
The strength of Burden of Truth isn’t only in the portrayal of its conflicted protagonist, or in its ability to seamlessly blend elements of law-and-crime tropes with drama and mystery, but also, I think in its choice to veer away from convention by adopting a serialized format. I’ve been wary of serialization in the past (re: Star Trek: Discovery), but here it feels validated – not just because the show has only been slated for 10 episodes (so far), but also because the nature of the genre and the plot lends itself to an extended storyline. The mystery of the sickness parallels the mystery around Joanna’s departure from Millwood and the town’s hostility towards her after so many years when she reveals who her father is. It gives the series room to breathe and for the characters to evolve. At the same time, it also works as a narrative tool, to help establish a sense of place and give the audience a chance to immerse themselves in the close-knit rural atmosphere of Millwood. In essence, it enables us as viewers to experience the same sort of culture shock that accompanies Joanna upon her return: as with any small town, it takes time for the locals to (re)accept you.
The analogy here is implicit. Give Burden of Truth a chance, and it’ll invite you in.