Review: Cardinal (S1 E1/6), Saturday 3rd June, BBC4

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So snowy, so icy, so barren, so Fargo – give or take 900 miles across the Laurentian Divide between the town in North Dakota and North Bay, Ontario, where Cardinal takes place. But in terms of dramatic intensity these two crime series are galaxies apart. 

It’s the usual story. Busted down in the ranks for his morbid fixation with a previous unsolved case, embittered cop John Cardinal (Billy Campbell, seen in the inferior US version of The Killing) is reinstated in the homicide unit of the Algonquin Bay Police when his obsessing is vindicated by the discovery of the frozen body of missing 13-year-old Katie Pine in an old mine head building.

Cardinal sees misery wherever he goes, even projecting his own marital woes (wife Catherine seems to be in a psychiatric institution) on a couple seen arguing while stuffing their new TV into the back of their car (although there is method in his madness of watching people by big-ticket electrical items at the mall).

You can sympathise with his new partner Detective Lise Delorme (Karine Vanessa), who isn’t too thrilled to be teamed with a grumpy perfectionist who dismisses a young constable for having blundered into the body dumpsite, contaminating it with his boots.

Delorme tells him she heard that he ran his squad ragged for a year before getting so wound up that he fell asleep at the wheel one night and “crashed into a dumpster”. “Wrong,” he says, “it was a hydro box.” (Which is a heating unit on a building, apparently).

He gives her a list of breaking-and-entering cases to clear up, which doesn’t seen to put her out too much. But then Delorme has her own fish to fry.

Even when she’s at home in her nightie he phones to discuss the case (although sidelines her in the office).

Cue a lot of taciturn staring at Katie’s possessions in her bedroom and crime scene photos to a brooding score that is quite Morse-ish in part and, as is usual in modern TV drama, too pervasive across quiet dialogue.

Cardinal is sure that the predator who killed Katie is a repeat stalker from outside of her circle – there is a racial angle too, as Katie was an indigenous native American.

Noelle Dyson, Cardinal’s boss, offers Katie’s Mom a large funeral at the town’s main church paid for by the police and mayor’s office, presumably to see if suspects turn up to rubberneck. But Mom wants a native funeral (this was the tribal stamping ground of the Algonquin Indians).

In a stretch, he attributes a boy’s drowning to the same killer, although it was chalked up to an accidental death. Delorme’s husband is a bit tetchy with Cardinal calling so late; either he’s the killer, or he wants to get some sleep.

And the cops’ woes are compounded by the appearance of Malcolm Musgrave (a more rugged version of Superintendent Ted Hastings) at the station, an investigator from HQ there to sniff out a bent cop. Delorme already knows because she’s working for him – and their suspect of course is Cardinal.

Behind striving to put right what once went wrong, Cardinal is harbouring a Dark Secret of his own. Who is the mysterious Francis he meets in the wilderness at night to hand over packages of what looks like cash? Cardinal is obviously guilty of a crime. But is he, as Musgrave and Delorme believe, feeding police intelligence to a brutal drug lord? Nah – we’re putting our money on their colleague Detective McLeod (James Downing) just because we think he’s a bit of a sneak.

An adaptation of Giles Blunt’s award-winning novel Forty Words for Sorrow, the first series of Cardinal was apparently the most-watched new Canadian series and ranked among the top 10 new series in the 2016/17 season, averaging 1.1 million viewers weekly – pretty good in a nation of about 35 million people and it received an unprecedented two-season renewal.

There are enough elements here to keep us watching; the characters, while not blessed with much depth, are at least watchable. The script, though, is a little formulaic (we found ourselves anticipating several lines). Cardinal is a workmanlike piece – quite pacey and atmospheric, and shot with a more downbeat colour palette than Fargo, which although set in a similar-looking environment, did inject occasional visual flourishes. This is far more crepuscular, reminding us of the look of the Scandi version of The Killing, but nowhere near as quirky. The opening titles are pretty mesmeric, though.

Deborah Shrewsbury
@shrewdkitty

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11 thoughts on “Review: Cardinal (S1 E1/6), Saturday 3rd June, BBC4

  1. I watched Cardinal and unfortunately I wasn’t keen at all. I’m watching.a Belgian one on Netflix (The Break) – thought it was French but it’s not – which I thought would be a bit naff, but actually I’m enjoying it. It struck me how similar the two are – and to many other crime dramas. So often we have male cop with psychological problems, ill or dead wife, difficult teenage son/daughter, sometimes coming back to home town. It’s become quite a cliche so, for me, they have to offer more to keep me interested. Obviously there’s the plot and maybe other central characters – sidekicks usually are quite important. Then there’s the setting, Trapped was a good example (and Fargo is the master imho) of making the most of dramatic snowscapes. Sadly, for me, it was all lacking in Cardinal and nothing – except maybe the female sidekick- grabbed me at all. As for the Belgian one, well I am partial to French language dramas, but the central character is quite interesting, the plot has grabbed me and the Belgian countryside is nicely shot. At the end of the day, I guess personal taste plays quite a big part.

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    • Yeah, I wasn’t exactly blown away by it – but I’ve been underwhelmed by almost everything post-Line Of Duty. so I thought I’d try to be a bit more upbeat this time after panning Prime Suspect 1973 and Paula ( haven’t yet seen this series of Fargo so far).

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      • Yes indeed. Well I’m already obsessed with the wonderful Twin Peaks and I did enjoy Fargo 😊

        (I gave up on Broken as well! Life’s too short for average stuff!)

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  2. I quite enjoyed the first two episodes and, snow aside, it had that Nordic vibe (my opinion). I think it would be a mistake to compare Fargo, for example, with Cardinal – there’s the dark undertow of humour running through Fargo which I’m thinking wont show up in Cardinal. I’m hopeful and looking forward to the rest of the series

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  3. NickHTK

    I live in Canada and have watched the whole series. I thought it to be fantastic and difficult to base on the first episode.
    Given the issues surrounding murdered indigenous youth in the Thunder Bay area and that city’s lack of interest made the series relevant.

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