The recent trend of Canadian co-productions making their way to American network television has been a bit bizarre to witness as a Canadian.
A show like Rookie Blue, which premiered last summer on ABC in the United States and on Global in Canada, means something very different within these two markets. For ABC, it was a “Summer Show,” the kind of programming that is lucky to draw a 1.5 in the key demo and very often disappears after a single disappointing season. For Global, meanwhile, this was a key programming tentpole: as a Canadian network, they are required to air a certain amount of Canadian content, and this was a high-profile series which was advertised just about everywhere you went.
I was in Canada when Rookie Blue premiered last year, and it was a very strange experience: while Americans were writing off the show as cheap summer fare, Canadians were embracing the show as an instance of a network not known for its glowing record of original, non-reality Canadian programming showing its support for Canadian content. This is not to say that Canadians are always willing to look past any number of flaws just because a show is Canadian, but rather that the show’s existence is about more than filling out a hole in the summer schedule, and thus wasn't written off immediately (at least by those who care about the industry - there's a whole inferiority complex among Canadian viewers which leads many to write off Canadian programming, but I don't have time to get into that here).
Of course, these narratives have now changed pretty significantly. Rookie Blue has now become a novelty of sorts, the rare summer show that actually returns for a second season. While it is still being met with considerably more fanfare in Canada (where I am [coincidentally] located as I write this review), the fact remains that the show doesn’t feel like it can be written off as easily as it was last season. As evidenced by “Butterflies,” the show seems to be walking with a bit of swagger as it starts its second season, delivering an episode that suggests both a maturation of the premise and a better understanding of what kind of show Rookie Blue really wants to be.
When the show premiered, the most common comparison was with Grey’s Anatomy, and how could this be avoided? The show focuses on rookie cops who find themselves training on the job, forced to deal with the perils of police work while dealing with the perils of discovering themselves, which is basically the same experience of the medical interns on Grey’s Anatomy. They make mistakes, they learn valuable lessons, they turn to sex as a means of coping, and they struggle with both sexual and non-sexual tension with their supervisors. I didn’t actually watch the show last season, beyond probably the first twenty minutes of the pilot, but “Butterflies” reveals enough about last season to confirm that the show didn’t move too far beyond stock storylines.
While I don’t know how I would have responded to the first season had I stuck with it, I think the second season starts in a very solid place. With the “trainees” now cops in their own right, still rookies but with definite experience under their belt, they struggle with what they’re supposed to do, precisely. Flying solo on what is supposed to be a routine crowd control gig, a shooting shatters any sense of routine, and sparks an investigation that has Officers McNally and Epstein (Missy Peregrym and Gregory Smith) each striving to do something, anything, to help justice be done in the wake of this tragedy.
Peregrym and Smith - both of whom I quite like here - are the right people to bear the weight of this particular storyline, and their arcs in the episode are well-drawn. I like how McNally’s eager unpacking at Luke’s apartment manifests itself in her work, and how what starts as simple eagerness becomes almost life-sustaining after being shot in the vest and feeling responsible for the girl’s death. Similarly, Epstein’s desire for more action gets sidetracked when he gets put into the ambulance with the victim, but he starts to realize what role he could play beyond high-speed chases as he fights to solve the crime in time for the victim’s organs to be donated. These are not complicated storylines, but the actors portray them well, and the themes are very well suited to police officers in their position.
The show still reminds me a great deal of Grey’s Anatomy, but now I see that less as an insult and more as a compliment. While that ABC series has become more inconsistent and tired over the past number of years, early seasons were still capable of being a harrowing and resonant look into what surgical residents faced on a daily basis. Admittedly, Rookie Blue doesn’t quite reach those levels, in part because some of their characterization (like the fact that Epstein’s brother killed himself) is sort of sloppily dropped into the story as exposition. However, “Butterflies” seems at least as interested in these types of themes as it is interested in love rhombuses and the like, which is a step in the right direction that I would hope they plan on exploring further in the rest of the season.
At this point, given my limited experience with the show, I don’t have a lot of investment in those various relationships, which are probably the part of the show that still most resembles a shoddy Grey’s Anatomy knock-off. However, the various romantic entanglements weren’t the reason I watched Grey’s Anatomy, and their presence here never felt too obnoxious — there was even a bit of poetry in that final scene, with two different parties pondering how former flames (or, at least, potential flames) should influence their career decisions. Like Grey’s Anatomy, this is a show that straddles the line between character drama and soap opera, and so elaborate relationship scenarios are to be expected (if not beloved by this particular viewer).
However, I do think that the show does have a pretty substantial flaw, which is that the police work in this episode was kind of laughable. The apprehension of the initial subject was too quick (and too random — why did he suspect the kid to begin with?), the interrogation of the initial suspect was too bull-headed, and the reveal of the actual subject was too clichéd (especially since the script kept talking about grad students as if to scream “It was a grad student!”). The show also struggles to transition from procedure to action, especially with the chase sequence: that standoff in the dorm room was just awkwardly staged, the girl’s hysterical tackling logical only insofar as it forced the requisite foot chase. While Grey’s Anatomy could stay grounded in one location, with each medical case following its own path that rarely moved beyond the hospital walls, Rookie Blue has to contort itself to make its storylines work on occasion, and it results in some silliness.
And yet, at the same time, there were some strong individual moments here that elevate this beyond “generic.” Sure, some of the scenes didn’t string together particularly well, but McNally and Shaw returning to her first day had some nice resonance, and McNally’s baton takedown of the killer was surprisingly badass. I also thought the direction on the initial shooting was really well done, as it had a visceral and stylish quality that I didn’t expect from the show. There was nothing new about the way it was shot, but it did register as a shock after what seemed like a tame and ‘generic’ start, and set the tone for what would follow. All of these scenes, and more, also felt like they were building on previous story developments, getting past those initial introductions and taking these characters to a new space: although the show still has that procedural core, there’s some serialization going on here, and that seems to be adding some considerable depth to its characters.
Rookie Blue is not breaking any new ground, but I think its second season has brought it to the place where it should have meaning for both Canadian and American viewers alike. It’s a rare instance of a network summer show that begins to tap into the pleasures of serialization, allowing characters to grow and explore new thematic territory, and it’s a rare instance of a Canadian show that gets to do the same. While there are questions to be raised about the value of co-production agreements on both sides of the border, and Rookie Blue is an uneven show that is still coming into its own, I’m kind of glad that both ABC and Global are giving this show a chance to grow despite the odds that were stacked up against it in the beginning. “Butterflies” doesn’t signal a dramatic rearrangement of the show’s priorities, or a campaign to challenge the gritty cop dramas we would hold up as some of television’s finest, but it does suggest that Rookie Blue wants to be something more than Canadian summer filler.
And that’s a fine place to start…or, rather, continue.
- I understand why they created the time limit for the investigation, as it was necessary for Epstein’s storyline and justified the speed at which the case was solved, but it was still another instance where realistic police work goes by the wayside for the purpose of the narrative.
- I’m always interested in how social media is portrayed on television, and I thought the integration here was pretty realistic (especially given that, as I saw mentioned on Twitter, similar tactics were used to identify some of those who rioted in Vancouver following the Stanley Cup Finals).
- Speaking of that scene, it’s good to see the show doing some long term planning: clearly, Epstein has the mind of a Detective, which suggests a potential promotion should the show continue to defy the laws of summer television.
- I do not believe there are any plans to add the series for the rest of the summer, but I don’t think you’d be crazy for wanting such a thing, so voice your support if you desire.