Winner of 5 Gemini Awards for Direction (Holly Dale), Sound, Writing (Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik), and Acting (Justin Louis and Helene Joy)
Although shot in Montreal, Durham County evokes the flat farm landscape of Durham County , lying to the west of more hilly and overpopulated Toronto. Like most emerging suburbs around Toronto, it's a cluster of modest to fat-sized homes designed in a faux estate style, or the more reviled snout-home, with garages poking out from the homes' faces like some design prank.
The show's suburban tract is more ersatz California: faux estate domiciles with interlocking stones and cheap brass fittings bunched together on lots allowing for a patio and pool, but it's the massive power lines and hydro towers strangling the tract that give the impression of hopeful families slowly being irradiated into a state of slow-building self-destruction.
What's surprising is that Durham County is not about petty neighbours involved in tit-for-tat wars; that's the first impression one gets when Mike Sweeney (Hugh Dillon), a homicide detective, moves his family into a house bought on the cheap after the previous owner lost his wife, money, missed the renovation payments, and killed himself.
The show's about nasty secrets and a serious case of six degrees of separation in a town where everyone is pretty much interconnected, and one violent act sets off a chain reaction: a serial rapist knocks out two schoolgirls with a rock, and the lone survivor is subsequently assaulted by Mike's ex-friend Ray Prager (Justin Louis) who also has serious mental issues, and happens to live across the street from Mike's already fractured family.
Mike's wife is slowly emerging from a near-death experience of breast cancer, his teenage daughter is bent on becoming a detective, and his younger daughter wears a mask because she seems to have zero self-esteem and feels ignored by her emotionally battered parents. Add another murder that upsets Mike's new position with the local police force, and you have a gripping first episode for one of the darkest shows on TV.
The problem with reviewing Durham County is any further information would blow some sharp twists and surprises, and really the best way to tackle show is without any knowledge about its plot points or the ghosts (past, real, and imagined) that affect the strong leading characters.
Created by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik (Bliss, Cold Squad), Janis Lundman (Bliss), and Adrienne Mitchell, and directed by former-documentarians Holly Dale (Hookers on Davie) and Mitchell (Talk 16, Talk 19), the core drama revolves around Mike and Ray, two former best friends who now loathe each other as adults, and the fine line of civility they maintain in spite of Ray's sly efforts to exert serious payback, no matter what peripheral carnage ensures. Although the murders are vital to the story, it's the revenge quest that propels the drama and that gives the writers plenty of room to set up scenes furthering the marital discords of both men.
Originally made for pay channels TMN and Movie Central, Durham County has a brooding tone and unsettling rhythm, and the filmmakers have crafted six episodes into a tight arc of suburban despair. The violence isn't gratuitous or sexualized; the marital abuse is ugly, and the self-confidence of the rapists (particularly the moments between an older man and a teen in the final episode) is almost unwatchable – not for what's shown, but because the prelude to an assault is almost banal; the predator's reasoning is simple, but completely ill, and it's the absence of any empathy or morality by a seemingly normal guy that makes the scene so powerful.
And yet the writers don't treat the show's main villain as an archetype. He's aware he's losing his mind, knows he's destroying the life he's built after years of struggling, and is tormented by a sick urge that's pushing away normal passions.
This is lean, tightly paced writing with a consistent tone and vision – qualities that would've been diluted and mucked up had the show aired on a commercial TV network. At six episodes spread across 2 DVDs, it's an easy two-day commitment (although it's just as effective plowing through the show in one sitting), and while the finale takes some familiar turns to reach its resolution, it leaves several plot points unresolved, setting up a second season without a major cliffhanger; there is closure, but you'll want to get closer to Mike Sweeney's busted up family, and will be yearning for Season 2.
Anchor Bay's set includes the six episodes, plus a making-of featurette that's largely comprised of the series' writers, directors, and producers, and cast members discussing their roles. There's also two songs performed by co-star Hugh Dillon with the Redemption Choir set to stills montages, and a brief Season 2 synopsis that's more of a teaser. Followed (so far) by Season 3.
Also available: interviews with series producers Adrienne Mitchell and Janis Lundman, and Season 2 and 3 composer Peter Chapman.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan