Endgame, “Opening Moves” (1.01)

The series credits for the show, displaying the title.

Endgame is a new drama on Showcase in Canada, about a master chessmaster solving crimes from his hotel. A review of the pilot, written by Avrum Jacobson and directed by David Frazee, after the jump…

“I love my weaknesses too. Know why? It distracts my opponents from my strengths.” – Arkady Balagan

From his work in Big Love, I did not think Shawn Doyle could anchor a distinctive, hard-to-play character like Russian chessmaster Arkady Balagan. I was wrong.

From the opening minutes of the pilot to its conclusion, Doyle completely owns this character. His hubris. his arrogance, his very deeply hidden sensitivities. When he’s on screen, this show works above and beyond where it should be able to – just call it the Hugh Laurie effect. And, indeed, there’s no doubt Balagan owes something to his American cousin, as while he coins no nicknames in this pilot, he shares the good doctor’s disdain for anyone who can’t keep up.

But while Balagan resembles House, I’d say the show around his is more like the Canadian Monk: just as formulaic, but never goes to the darkness or the complexities that House does, preferring to tell a genuinely pedestrian story with an enjoyable character at the centre. While the character is fun (and, thus, retains my interest for future episodes), he doesn’t do anything here that really explores why a chessmaster is uniquely qualified for solving mysteries. Castle week-in and week-out manages to explain why a writer’s gut and feel for character helps him help the police, while Arkady doesn’t do anything particularly impressive to solve this. In fact, the questions he asks (figuring out the boy’s birth father and Naveed’s jealousy) would probably have been caught by the police, had they not been distracted by the sex offender’s list.

To sell this character, we need moments like in Steven Moffat‘s Sherlock, where his unique viewpoint allows him to solve the crime. They tried to, here, but his imaginary conversations with figures in the story weren’t very different from what a non-chessmaster would do. The pilot didn’t explore his individual strengths, which is definitely something I shouldn’t be questioning in the pilot. At the very least, I should be questioning if those strengths will work for multiple cases, not whether the strengths have been put forward at all.

The other weakness, besides the borderline writing and the holes in the series’ formula, is Torrance Coombs as sidekick Sam. The show stops to a halt every time he’s on screen for some reason. I can’t say definitively yet whether he’s a good or bad actor, but he has negative screen presence: with very little specificity to the character, performance holds the key to our reaction to him, and my reaction every time he was on screen was to wish he weren’t. I hope this changes in future episodes, but typically, this doesn’t, and I can’t say I hold out much hope for him beyond finding another show.

That said? I enjoyed it. Folks in the Canadian industry have longtime been looking for a way to marry the look and energy of American television while infusing it with a Canadian sensibility, and Endgame does that difficult task almost as an afterthought. It looks good, with a great cast (barring the above exception), very good direction, and a unique lead character who will connect with viewers pretty easily. Katherine Isabelle and Carmen Aguirre are the supporting standouts, and I know Patrick Gallagher has chops from his arc on Glee, so there’s a strong pool here in terms of talent. And the Canadian sensibility? Aside from the (admittedly overkill) death of Balagan’s fiancee, there’s very little violence here, and no blood. Despite the horror of a child’s kidnapping, his kidnapper is so inept and bumbling that there’s never a sense that he’s in any real danger (and, in fact, is one of the pilot’s funnier figures), and the kid comes from a two-dad family, which would cause controversy in Hollywood and yet is completely casual here.

So, in the end… I liked it. Unless they step it up on the writing side, I don’t see it pulling me in completely, but its head and sholders above most of the Canadian television surrounding it, and more engaging than half of what Hollywood offers up as well. I just want to see what the rest of season one looks like, and whether Arkady Balagan enters our pantheon of great characters, or burns out within the first year. I’m hoping, both as a fan of Endgame and a fan of Canadian television, it’s the former.

One Response to “Endgame, “Opening Moves” (1.01)”
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  1. […] has been different from season one; I reviewed new Canadian series Endgame with an outlook that was positive, but cautious; and I took a look at the pilots of a few cancelled shows, like The Beautiful Life: TBL and Lone […]

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