Before there was The Wire.
Before there was The Shield.
Before there was The Beast.
Way before American television got gritty, there was Da Vinci’s Inquest, a Canadian crime series loosely based on real-life Vancouver coroner (later Mayor) Larry Campbell. Created by Chris Haddock, who cut his teeth writing for shows like Airwolf and Night Heat. In the late 80s, he worked on a show called Diamonds, a somewhat frothy (think Castle) show starring Nicholas Campbell. Haddock created the character of Dominic Da Vinci especially for Campbell, who has said many times that the role is his favorite part ever.
Campbell, one of Canada’s most visible actors, had to fight off a “pretty boy” image in his younger days. He was the original Hitchhiker before Page Fletcher took over–but since then he’s alternated between leading man roles and character parts. He’s done a slew of movies and television series on both sides of the border, most recently playing Chief Wuornos in SyFy’s series Haven. (Audience might remember him as the murderous deputy in Stephen King’s Dead Zone.)
Campbell was the title character, but he was book-ended in the series by two generations of co-stars, Donnelly Rhodes as the alcoholic, acerbic, chain-smoking veteran detective Leo Shannon and former child actor Ian Tracey as Det. Mick Leary. Their characters were complicated, multi-dimensional, and layered. Rhodes, who played the irascible doctor in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, had the showier part, playing an unrepentent racist who nevertheless exacted his own brand of justice when a native Canadian woman is murdered. (By law, Canadian television casts must reflect the ethnic makeup of the population, so the Da Vinci’s Inquest casting went way beyond a couple of minor black and Asian characters, which made it way more interesting than so many white-bread American shows.)
Tracey’s intensity was not unlike David Caruso in the early days of NYPD Blue. In one of the later years of the series, his character went spectacularly off the rails after the suicide of a cop with a crush on him. Tracey would later go on to star in Intelligence, playing a crime kingpin working with the cops in a show created for him by Chris Haddock.
The episodes of Da Vinci’s Inquest were packed with a who’s who of Canadian actors, from Eric Petersen to Matt Frewer to smoky-voiced Gwyneth Walsh, who played Da Vinci’s ex-wife, medical examiner Patricia Da Vinci (who has left him for his boss as the show opens). Sarah Strange, who was in Men in Trees, took a small part as a secretary and turned every moment into a showcase with her quirky acting choices.
As good as the acting was, though, it was the writing that drew audiences in. Haddock wrote 91 of the episodes and not one of them had a false note. The show tackled tough themes–elder abuse, drug abuse, First Nation rights, sex worker rights, immigration, racial conflict–and the episodes were unflinching.
The show’s been off the air for half a dozen years, but if you haven’t seen Da Vinci’s Inquest and you love character-driven, issues-oriented crime shows with adult themes (and language–they can use profanity on CBC), you owe it to yourself to track this series down.
Where to find Da Vinci’s Inquest:
Hulu has the first two seasons available. Netflix has the first three seasons available for instant streaming. YouTube offers selected episodes of both Da Vinci’s Inquest and Da Vinci’s City Hall, but they have to be watched in ten-minute increments. YouTube also has a lot of “Behind the scenes” interviews with the Da Vinci actors and writer Chris Haddock. Amazon.com has the first three seasons for sale and also offers individual episodes.