James McGowan, who plays a Canadian immigration officer on the CBC's action TV series, The Border, has defined the difference between his character and Special Agent Bianca LaGarda, an arrogant, loud employee of U.S. Homeland Security.
"It's a clash between classic American and Canadian," McGowan explained to a reporter the other day. "She acts and talks before thinking." There we have the difference between Americans and Canadians, as defined by CBC television. Thousands of people have tried to express that distinction. McGowan nails it in six words.
While Americans typically rush toward reckless judgements, Canadians are like McGowan's solid, level-headed Major Mike Kessler. Our guys move with care and consideration, lest they make a mistake that might harm someone.
The Border, which started its season on Monday, is the kind of show that makes you proud to be a Canadian -- especially if, like McGowan's Mike, you're also really, really boring. The script expresses what J.L. Granatstein, the historian, described the other day (he was writing about Liberal and NDP policy on Afghanistan) as the "sanctimonious, opportunistic anti-Americanism" that crops up so often among Canadians.
Peter Raymont, the executive producer of The Border, has said his show resembles Kiefer Sutherland's 24 -- "but with a conscience." You can't get any more CBC-sanctimonious than that.
Among TV heroes, Mike is a straight arrow. He's a solemn, one-dimensional and painfully upright leader of Immigration and Customs Security (ICS). He has the official rule book, and probably the Charter of Rights as well, engraved on his brain pan.
Thirty years ago he would have been the perfect hero for a show about the RCMP. Today, after years of national disillusionment with federal police, he's a walking anachronism. He's unlike the old-fashioned Ottawa cop in only one way. He has a sex life, which I believe was illegal in former times. Sadly, that's his character's least believable side. Mike goes to bed with a civil-rights lawyer who spends her time opposing his department's decisions. In the real world, which this show tries vainly to evoke, that affair would be a career-killer for both of them.
In the opening show on Monday, Mike's crack team of immigration cops arrives at Toronto's Pearson Airport to catch a Syrian terrorist as he arrives in Canada with a belt full of gel-based explosives that he somehow smuggled onto the plane. This scene contains much running, jumping and shouting, so that we know from the beginning we're watching a thriller.
When Mike's men finally arrest the terrorist, they also arrest a Canadian citizen born in Syria, Nizar Karim, who sat beside the terrorist on the plane. They haven't got anything on Karim, but an evil-looking officer from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) jumps into the plot and demands possession of him. In less time than it takes to say Maher Arar, they have him tucked away in a Syrian jail. We're soon told that CSIS is carrying out the wishes of the Americans, on orders from a sinister deputy minister in Ottawa.
Naturally, the immigration people decide that Karim is a decent, innocent guy, a respected high-school science teacher. Maybe he's been seen at a radical mosque, but he can explain that: He's trying to save his prize student from becoming a jihadist.
Major Mike realizes it's his duty to rescue Karim from Syria, and he pulls it off by intimidating the government with shrewdly organized media pressure. The evil deeds of both CSIS and the Americans are frustrated.
This is the third anti-American drama on the CBC schedule this season, the others being Intelligence and H2O, a miniseries that unveils two new programs, jointly titled The Trojan Horse, in March and April. All of them depict public-spirited Canadians fighting off the influence of greedy or just plain vile Americans. Apparently, our immigration department's real enemies aren't terrorists or smugglers. They're Americans.
The style of The Border makes its politics especially pathetic. While Intelligence was sharp and original, The Border comes across as a frank imitation of American style, right down to standard-issue chase scenes. For a little comedy to offset the deadness of the stars, The Border brings on a computer expert named Hieronymus Slade, a Canadian imitation of Chloe ("Copy that") O'Brian, Kiefer Sutherland's computer whiz back-up on 24. Hieronymus exhibits minimal social skills, endlessly munches junk food while solving impossible cyberspace problems and shouts a lot when his computer skills pay off. Not bad, but Chloe is funnier and more credible. Unfortunately, she's also American.